At least 44 people were killed on Monday when al-Qaeda militants raided a barracks, the latest in a spate of attacks by the extremist network which has boosted its presence in Yemen’s lawless south and east.
“Forty-four people, including 14 soldiers who included an officer, were killed” in the clashes in Abyan province’s city of Loder between the army -- backed by tribesmen -- and al-Qaeda, a military official said.
Twenty-four militants and six tribesmen were killed in the fighting, according to the toll the official gave, which was confirmed by tribal sources.
The barracks in Loder came under fire from the Islamists before daylight and the soldiers fought back, military sources said.
A government official in Loder told AFP that the army later withdrew from the barracks where the town’s tribesmen, who have been fighting alongside the soldiers, were left to battle the militants.
“The army is backing us with weapons,” a tribal chief said. “We will fight al-Qaeda and will not let them into our city.”
The attack Monday came after air strikes killed 24 suspected al-Qaeda militants in their strongholds of southern and eastern Yemen at the weekend, according to the defense ministry and a tribal chief.
The city of Loder is located some 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Zinjibar, the Abyan provincial capital which the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law) overran in May last year.
The Partisans of Sharia is linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which the United States considers to be the most active branch of the global terror network.
AQAP has exploited a decline in central government control that accompanied Arab Spring-inspired protests that eventually forced Yemen’s veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power in the face of a popular uprising.
A local source in Jaar, where dead and wounded extremists were taken, said that 12 militants were also killed late on Sunday in artillery shelling by the army on the outskirts of Zinjibar.
Dozens of fighters have poured in from the town of Azzan in Shabwa to back fighters in Zinjibar, he said. Among them were nationals from neighboring Gulf states, mainly Saudi Arabia.
The conflict with Islamists in the south is only one of several challenges facing the new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who took office vowing to fight al-Qaeda, only to have more than 100 soldiers killed in a series of attacks in his first days in power.
Washington, which has pursued a campaign of assassination by drone and missile against alleged al-Qaeda targets in Yemen, wants Hadi to reunify a military that split between Saleh’s foes and allies last year, and focus it on "counter-terrorism".
Yemen’s main airport in the capital, Sana’a, was paralyzed for a day after Hadi sacked the air force commander, a relative of Saleh, on Friday, and pro-Saleh officers responded by blockading the airport with vehicles.
A government official said they backed down only after warnings from the United States and the Gulf countries which crafted the deal that made Hadi president.