ADEN (Reuters) - The Yemeni army battled al Qaeda-linked militants deep inside Zinjibar on Saturday, recapturing key positions in the rebel-held southern city and killing at least 62 Islamist fighters, a military official said.
The official said four government soldiers died and four were wounded in the fighting, part of an offensive that began earlier this month to uproot Islamist militants from southern Yemen. He said many of the dead militants were Somalis.
Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law)have exploited last year’s popular protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-years in office and captured swathes of territory in the province of Abyan, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
The expansion of the militants’ area of control has unsettled the United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of failed attacks by Yemen’s al Qaeda wing which earlier this week claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Sanaa on Monday that killed more than 100 soldiers.
Both countries have been pushing new Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour, who took over after Saleh stepped down in February, to unite the army and roll back the militants’ gains.
Washington considers Yemen’s al Qaeda wing, which has attracted foreign fighters from places such as Somalia and Saudi Arabia, the network’s most active cell.
Yemeni forces last week recaptured parts of the strategic city of Zinjibar and fought militants in the city of Jaar, another militant stronghold, leaving 33 militants and nine soldiers dead.
The Yemeni military official said eight soldiers were killed on Saturday when a road-side bomb ripped through their vehicle near Jaar. In Zinjibar, troops had found the bodies of 25 militants killed in earlier clashes, he said.
American intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say their ability to conduct operations against AQAP inside Yemen has improved significantly since President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh on February 25.
U.S. officials say it has become easier to get men and equipment into Yemen for operations, allowing these to expand significantly, notably via drone strikes.
Also on Saturday, a Saudi Arabian diplomat kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in Yemen urged the Saudi king to meet his captors’ demand for the release of women prisoners, in a video message posted on the Internet on Saturday.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Matthew Tostevin