SANAA, Yemen – An Al Qaeda attack Monday on a Yemeni army post in the south set off clashes that left 44 people dead and prompted local civilians to take up arms alongside the military to beat back the militants, said army officials and residents.
The dawn attack demonstrates how Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen has exploited the political and security turmoil following the country's yearlong uprising, managing to take control of large swaths of land in the south and staging increasingly bold attacks on the military.
The officials said the militants attacked an army position in the town of Lawder in Abyan province, where Al Qaeda fighters are active. The town is some 155 miles southeast of the capital of Sanaa.
Residents and military officials said 24 militants were killed in the clashes. Additionally, 14 soldiers, including a colonel, were killed battling the militants Monday, officials said.
Jihad Hafeez, a member of a local anti-Al Qaeda group in Lawder, said six of his men were killed and eight wounded as they tried to push the militants out of their city. The group is comprised of civilians, mainly from anti-Al Qaeda tribes, who oppose the group.
Hafeez said locals have set up check points in and around Lawder to keep the militants out. He said they were able to push Al Qaeda fighters out of the city by the afternoon.
Al Qaeda was once present in Lawder, but in July residents drove them out. A few months later Al Qaeda was blamed for planting a roadside bomb that killed two civilians there, and, as Monday's attack demonstrates, they continue to try to regain their foothold.
For the militants, Lawder is a strategic city. It lies along a major highway that links Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar, an Al Qaeda stronghold, to the provinces of Hadramawt, Bayda and Shabwa where the group is active.
A member of one of the committees, Abdullah Amer, said fighting raged for hours before the militants were forced to retreat.
The army officials said a nearby army brigade sent reinforcements to back up the soldiers during the fire fight.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military rules, said three militants were also killed in government shelling of the town of Jaar, near Zinjibar, which is still under the militants control.
Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots.
Yemen's military in the south, poorly equipped and low on morale after a series of bloody Al Qaeda attacks, has not been able to fight the group and its supporters alone. In cities like Lawder, residents have become fed up with the government's inability to protect them and, in a country where tribes posses weapons, have taken up arms to protect themselves.
Elsewhere in the south, the U.S. has also joined the fight by carrying out drone strikes targeting the Al Qaeda's leaders.
Al Qaeda and other militant groups have taken advantage of Yemen's yearlong political turmoil to try to expand their reach in the country's south, capturing several key cities and towns.
Yemen's uprising, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February. His successor and former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote. He was the sole candidate as part of a power transfer deal backed by both the U.S. and Gulf Arab states.
Hadi has vowed to fight Al Qaeda while restructuring the armed forces, in which Saleh's loyalists and family members still hold key posts.
Hadi Friday fired key commanders and relatives of Saleh including the ex-president's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar. The shake-up sparked a showdown with Saleh's supporters who Saturday tried to take over the capital's airport, even rolling tanks onto the tarmac and shooting up an airport surveillance tower.
The air force commander initially defied the order to step down and holed himself up in his office before abruptly leaving Sunday as the airport was reopened.