Yemeni troops have captured rebel-held positions on the outskirts of the southern city of Jaar, a military official said on Tuesday, pushing ahead with a U.S.-backed offensive to uproot Islamist militants from the country.
He said at least 10 militants have been killed in the fighting since Monday night and that the Yemeni army was within 2-3 km (1-2 miles) from Jaar.
“Seizing this area will help us gain control of Jaar city,” he told Reuters. “Our goal is to advance into the city.”
Qaeda-linked militants seized large swaths of territory in southern Yemen last year as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh grappled with protests seeking his overthrow. Saleh quit in favor of his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour last November.
The United States and its Gulf Arab allies have watched with mounting alarm as security deteriorates in Yemen, home to Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula wing (AQAP), which is viewed by Washington as a serious threat.
The United States has stepped up air strikes using drones against targets in Yemen it says may be plotting attacks against it. It has also renewed military training to help Yemeni security forces grow strong enough to reassert control over the country.
The military official said troops advanced by at least one km in Jaar’s direction in the past 24 hours. “The troops are continuing to shell the northern and central parts of the city.”
Jaar residents said that food supplies were running short and many were unable to flee the city due to heavy shelling.
“The house next to ours was destroyed by shells and we're worried the same will happen to us,” a Jaar resident said, without giving his name.
The governor of Abyan Jamal al-Aqel said that the military has asserted control on several southern towns that militants tried to control in the past, including Lawdar and Mudiyah, adding that heavy fighting inside Zinjibar was continuing.
A military official said four soldiers were wounded on Tuesday when Islamist militants ambushed government troops outside the city.
Months of fighting and shelling in and around Zinjibar have turned the strategically important city into ghost town, residents said.
“Most of the city is empty, the buildings are destroyed and most of the basic services like electricity are cut off,” one resident told Reuters by telephone.
Saudi Arabia has advised its citizens to stay away from Yemen, the official SPA news agency said on Tuesday. Last month, the deputy consul at the Saudi consulate in the southern port city of Aden who was kidnapped by Qaeda militants, apparently to exchange him for women prisoners and a ransom.