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Yemeni army fights off Islamists; official says at least 230 soldiers killed in battles with Qaeda

Yemeni troops killed four Islamist militants on Sunday as the army consolidated its grip on Zinjibar, a day after recapturing the southern city from a al-Qaeda linked group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia, Reuters reported a military spokesman as saying.

On Sunday, however, a military official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that the military had reclaimed control only of the northern and eastern parts of the city.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, another official told AFP that the two soldiers died "when a mine planted by Qaeda-affiliated militants exploded in eastern Zinjibar."

Residents said a Yemeni air strike killed at least three fighters near the militant-held town of Jaar, apparently as they were fleeing towards it from Zinjibar.

Ansar al-Sharia, which the government says is linked to the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seized Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, in May, cutting off an army brigade in a nearby barracks.

The army said on Saturday it had retaken the coastal city and linked up with the stranded 25th brigade after a two-month offensive backed by air strikes and heavy weaponry.

Islamist militants have seized swathes of territory in Abyan, exploiting turmoil in a country convulsed for months by protests against Saleh's 33-year rule.

Separately, a ruling party official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh was expected to empower his deputy to negotiate over a Gulf-sponsored plan for the transfer of power, but that he would not give up his state powers immediately.

Opponents of Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from a bomb attack on his Sanaa palace in June, have accused him of exaggerating the al Qaeda threat or even manipulating militants as a ploy to scare Washington and Riyadh into backing him.

In the capital Sanaa, a brigadier general was assassinated, state media reported, while in the main southern city of Aden, an army colonel commanding an armored brigade fighting militants in Abyan survived an assassination attempt, a security official said.

He said an explosion destroyed a car and the gates of the colonel's house, in the latest of several attacks on military or security officers in Aden province in recent months.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the two attacks.

Death toll

Meanwhile, at least 230 Yemeni soldiers were killed in fighting with militants linked to Qaeda that led to the lifting of the siege of a brigade imposed three months ago, AFP reported the country’s defense ministry as saying on Sunday.

Another 50 tribal auxiliaries allied to the government were also killed.

“The southern military region lost more than 230 martyrs in the fighting” to lift the siege of the 25th Mechanised Brigade’s base in Zinjibar, state news agency Saba quoted Defence Minister General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed as saying.

Earlier, Saba quoted Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi as telling European diplomats that 90 soldiers at the besieged base and 30 Al-Qaeda leaders had been killed in Zinjibar since militants seized it on May 29.

But the agency said the military casualties announced by Hadi did not include dozens of soldiers from outside the ranks of the 25th Mechanised Brigade who were killed or wounded in the battle to retake Zinjibar and two other towns.

Ahmed, who inspected the Zinjibar base on Sunday morning, a day after the siege was lifted, added that tribal fighters who fought alongside government forces against the militants had lost more than 50 men.

The latest figures take to more than 280 the number of soldiers and tribal fighters killed in the offensive to retake Zinjibar, capital of the restive southern Yemeni province of Abyan.

Saba also quoted the vice president as saying that 30 local Qaeda leaders were killed in the same time period, making Zinjibar "a graveyard for the Qaeda terrorist network."

In a separate meeting with a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Hadi said military operations in Abyan were nearly complete, adding "there are still some pockets of resistance in isolated areas."

A military official on Sunday reported two Yemeni soldiers were killed and four others wounded by a mine explosion.

Military officials have told AFP that the nearby towns of Jaar and Shakra remain under militant control.

Southern Yemen has seen a sharp rise in violence since mass anti-government protests threw into question the entrenched presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh and weakened the central government.

The violence has displaced more than 100,000 Yemenis in the south in recent months, according to the United Nations.