SANAA, Yemen -- Airstrikes killed 18 Al Qaeda-linked militants in central Yemen Saturday while separate strikes targeted militants in the south, officials said, as the military struck back at the group after it killed nearly 200 of its soldiers.
The military offensive comes in response to an attack last week in which Al Qaeda's militants sneaked across the desert at dawn to the back lines of Yemeni forces. Many of the troops were asleep in their tents when militants sprayed them with bullets. Their bodies, many of which were missing heads or mutilated, were later dumped in the desert.
The bloody assault on the military in Abyan province revealed the magnitude of the Yemeni army's defeat after nearly a year of political turmoil across the country has left an emboldened Al Qaeda in its wake.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, faces the heavy burden of trying to dislodge the militants. He was sworn-in as president Feb. 25 after taking over from Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for more than three decades.
Al Qaeda has long had a presence in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. But in the chaos of last spring they established a much stronger foothold in southern Yemen and since then have tried to push north into the central province of Bayda. From there, the group could extend its reach into the capital. In January, Al Qaeda militants stormed a local prison and freed at least 150 inmates in the town of Radda in central Yemen.
Saturday's attacks on the outskirts of Bayda city, some 100 miles southeast of the capital Sanaa, began late Friday and continued into early Saturday, according to witnesses. They said at least two houses were demolished.
In the south, a military official said airstrikes near the city of Jaar in Abyan province wounded nine Al Qaeda-linked militants and destroyed several military vehicles the group had seized in its attack on the army base last week. Earlier this week, a military assault on Jaar killed eight militants and wounded 12 others.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.
The U.N.'s High Commissioner on Refugees said that in the past two weeks alone, 1,800 people fled their homes in the south due to the violence. Over the past year, 150,000 people have had to flee after Al Qaeda took over parts of the south.
Protesters and military officials blame the lawlessness in parts of Yemen on commanders installed by Saleh, who they say promoted his allies and relatives on the basis of loyalty not competence.
They say these officers were lax about taking the fight to Al Qaeda, and may have struck local deals with the militants.
If Hadi leaves these commanders in place, military officials say, Al Qaeda is likely to expand areas under its control and continue to stage bold attacks.