Yemeni forces have launched an operation to drive al-Qaida fighters out of southern towns, where blistering air strikes killed nearly 60 militants last week, military officials said on Tuesday.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula jihadists established strongholds in towns and rugged zones in Abyan and Shabwa provinces after security forces chased them from major cities in Abyan in 2012.
Yemen and U.S. drone strikes last week targeted bases of AQAP, considered by Washington as the most dangerous affiliate of the global jihadist network with links to several failed terror plots against the United States.
Army troops backed by local militiamen had moved in to “purge” the towns of Ahwar and Al-Mahfad, in Abyan province, and Azzan, Al-Houta, Al-Rawda and Al-Saeed in Shabwa province, a military official told AFP.
“The campaign will not stop until these areas are purged of al-Qaida militants,” added the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
Government forces clashed Tuesday with Islamist militants in the Lahmar area, which overlooks Al-Mahfad, a military commander said.
Other clashes took place near Al-Saeed as militants confronted advancing government forces, other military sources said.
Hussein al-Wuhayshi, a leader of the Popular Committees armed groups that had fought in the past alongside government forces, said his fighters were taking part in the attack.
“There is an official decision to uproot al-Qaida from Abyan and Shabwa,” he told AFP.
Officials spoke last week of an “unprecedented” U.S. and aerial campaign against al-Qaida militants in the area after two days of strikes.
The interior ministry said last week that air raids on April 20 in Abyan province killed 55 militants, while three others were killed in a strike in Shabwa.
A day earlier, a drone strike in the central Baida province killed 10 al-Qaida suspects and three civilians.