Yemen forces pressed on Sunday with an assault to recapture the al-Qaeda-held southern city of Zinjibar, advancing on two fronts amid air cover in fighting that killed six soldiers in two days, military officials said.
The offensive takes place as U.S. drones have intensified raids against al-Qaeda militants in other parts of the country on Saturday.
Yemen and Washington do not acknowledge U.S. drone attacks.
Local officials told Reuters the strikes were believed to have been carried out by U.S. drones and up to 12 militants were killed, including an Egyptian and two Saudis.
Four soldiers were killed in overnight fighting with militants around Zinjibar bringing the total of army losses since the all-out operation was launched Saturday to six, a military official said.
“The fighting continues and the army is advancing towards Zinjibar,” the capital of the southern province of Abyan, said the official on condition of anonymity.
“The death toll among soldiers has increased to six, while 18 others were wounded,” the official added.
He said that government forces have made progress on the southern and eastern fronts of the city, with troops reaching the Shaddad Fort, around three kilometers (1.8 miles) east of Zinjibar, and the Zinjibar Bridge, around one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the city.
Another military official said air raids on Sunday targeted Zinjibar and the neighboring town of Jaar, while the artillery continued to pound the city.
Military units also attacked Jaar from the west, a military official said on Saturday, adding troops had reached the area of Kadama, on the outskirts of the town.
The militants took advantage of a central government weakened by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising to overrun Zinjibar in May last year. They also control Jaar and other parts of the province.
Yemen’s new President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who was elected for an interim two-year term in a single candidate vote in late February, has pledged to rid Yemen of the extremist group.
Attacks on al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces and suspected U.S. drones have increased lately, including an air raid in eastern Yemen a week ago that killed jihadist network leader Fahd al-Quso, wanted by Washington in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor.
Quso’s name figured on an FBI list of most wanted terrorists, along with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Last week, the U.S. Defense Department said Washington had resumed training Yemeni armed forces to bolster the fight against al-Qaeda, after a suspension during the political upheaval that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.