At least 29 people were killed in heavy fighting on Saturday between the army and suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen's southern province of Lahij, officials said.
“Seventeen soldiers were killed in the fighting,” which erupted when the Islamist fighters attacked army positions in Mallah, a town in Lahij, an army officer on the ground told AFP.
An official in the al-Qaeda stronghold of Jaar, southeast of Lahij, said 12 militants were also killed.
“The air force and ground troops are now shelling an army post which al-Qaeda militants have managed to take over” in Mallah, the army officer said.
Militant group Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) claimed responsibility for the attack. In a text message purporting to come from the group, it said it had killed 30 conscripts.
“The holy warriors of Ansar al-Sharia this morning carried out the raid of dignity on the al-Hurur military checkpoint in Abyan, resulting in the deaths of around 30,” read the message, the authenticity of which could not immediately be verified.
The attackers targeted the 119th and 201st army brigades, involved in military operations aimed at regaining control over Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province southeast of Lahij, which the militants overran last May.
On Friday, al-Qaeda members sabotaged a 320-kilometre (200-mile) gas pipeline linking Marib province to Balhaf terminal on the Gulf of Aden, all in the country’s restive south.
The pipeline attack came shortly after two U.S. drone attacks in eastern Yemen targeted al-Qaeda suspects killing seven people, six of them militants, according to a local official in Shabwa province.
The army has been locked for months in deadly battles with the al-Qaeda-linked militants who have named themselves Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law).
The Islamists have exploited a central government weakened by a year of anti-regime protests to strengthen their grip, launching deadly attacks against security forces, especially across south and southeast Yemen.
The United States says the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is the most active branch of the global terror network.