SANAA, Yemen – Yemen's military regained part of a strategic southern city on Saturday after an intense battle with Al Qaeda militants left 19 people dead as the government tries to purge the insurgents from their strongholds, officials said.
The battle in Zinjibar is part of attempts by the Yemeni government to regain parts of the country it lost to Al Qaeda militants who took advantage of last year's chaotic uprising against longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize new ground.
Military and medical officials said that 12 militants and seven troops died and nearly 30 militants were injured during the battle with Yemeni forces, who took control of the eastern part of Zinjibar.
The coastal city is the capital of Abyan province, and driving Al Qaeda out of it would loosen Al Qaeda's grip over Yemen's southern territories. The city also lies near key shipping lanes through which millions of barrels of oil pass every day.
The militants buried their dead in the nearby town of Jaar and turned a kindergarten there into a field hospital to treat their injured, medical officials said. The school was also being used as a command center by the militants, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In Lawder, another town in Abyan province, at least 250 Al Qaeda militants and 37 government soldiers have been killed in two weeks of fighting, the defense ministry said Friday. Yemeni forces are trying to repel efforts by Al Qaeda militants to regain control over the town which it lost last summer when residents took up arms and pushed the militants out.
On Saturday the ministry said it is sending more troops to the south in a sign of the intensifying fight there.
The war on Al Qaeda is one of the most challenging tests facing the country's new president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He took power after Saleh stepped down in February as part of power-transfer deal brokered by Arab Gulf countries and backed by the United States.
The U.S. believes Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch is the most dangerous arm of the terror group because of its repeated attempts to carry out attacks in the United States.
Hadi, who faces a plethora of rivalries and conflicts throughout Yemen, has pledged to restructure the military to better fight Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, but he's been facing stiff resistance from loyalists to Saleh and family members who are still at the top of key military and security positions.
The opposition has accused Saleh of using his men to try to undermine his successor in a bid to return to office.
Separately, tension between an ultraconservative Islamist group and former Shiite rebels in northern Yemen erupted into violence Saturday, leaving eight people dead, according to military officials.
The two sides traded accusations about who attacked first.
The former rebels, called Hawthis, said they were ambushed in the area of Rehan by a group of ultraconservative Sunni Muslims called Salafis, resulting in four Shiites killed. But the Salafis claim it was the Shiite rebels that ambushed and killed four of their students.
The Hawthis fought a bloody six-year war against Saleh's government in northern Saada province, along the Saudi border, until reaching an agreement with Saleh in 2010. But the situation in northern Yemen remains tense.
Last year, more than 200 people were killed in clashes between the Salafis and Hawthis before a cease-fire was brokered.
Many Sunni extremists do not consider Shiites to be true Muslims. In recent months, Al Qaeda has called on some of its forces to fight the Shiite Hawthis. Some Salafis follow a militant ideology similar to Al Qaeda's, but they are not affiliated.