Yemen’s army recaptured on Tuesday al-Qaeda’s southern stronghold of Zinjibar after a month-long offensive to regain control of areas overran by the jihadists last year, a military official said, shortly after it recaptured the nearby town of Jaar, a military official said.
“Zinjibar in total has fallen” in the hands of government forces, said General Mohammed al-Somali, the head of 25th Mechanized Brigade. Both Zinjibar and Jaar are located in the Abyan province.
The official had earlier said that Islamist fighters were still putting up a fight in other parts of Zinjibar, but expected “the fall of the city within hours.’
He said that troops came upon six bodies of al-Qaeda fighters in the city, but did not elaborate whether they were killed in fighting on Tuesday.
Five soldiers were however wounded when hit by landmines in Zinjibar on Tuesday, the official added.
Earlier on Tuesday, the army claimed to control the southern town of Jaar from al-Qaeda-linked militants after heavy fighting that killed at least 24 people, the Defense Ministry and residents said.
The capture of Jaar is considered a major victory for the U.S.-backed Yemeni army offensive launched last month to recapture several towns seized by Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) during political turmoil in Yemen last year.
The Defense Ministry said the army, backed by local fighters from popular committees set up during last year's uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, entered the city on Tuesday after heavy fighting that killed at least 20 militants and four Yemeni soldiers.
An Ansar al-Sharia spokesman said the army had taken control of the town of more than 100,000 people and said a statement would be issued later, Reuters reported.
Residents said the militants fled under cover of darkness, leaving behind flyers asking inhabitants to forgive them and asserting that they did not want to “cause any harm to Jaar and its inhabitants.”
Armored vehicles moved into the center of Jaar hours after al-Qaeda militants withdrew towards the nearby town of Shuqra, when “fighting with the army became fiercer,” one resident told AFP.
Yemeni forces launched an offensive on May 12 aimed at reclaiming towns and cities lost to al-Qaeda over the past year, including Abyan’s capital Zinjibar.
Since the offensive began, 485 people have been killed, according to an AFP tally combined from different sources. This includes 368 al-Qaeda militants, 72 soldiers, 26 local armed men and 19 civilians.