SANAA, Yemen – The Yemeni army repelled a dawn attack by Al Qaeda fighters seeking to recapture a restive southern town in intense clashes that killed seven soldiers and 16 militants on Wednesday, security officials said.
The fighting raged for nearly three hours on the fringes of the town of Azan in Shabwa province, the officials said.
Government warplanes came to the aid of the troops as they defended the town, bombing positions of the attacking militants, added the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Azan clash comes amid an ongoing offensive by the army in Yemen's southern cities and towns, which has led to the killing and capture of dozens of Al Qaeda suspects.
Al Qaeda fighters have been retreating from areas they held in the face of the offensive, which has focused mostly on Shabwa and the province of Marib, east of the capital, Sanaa.
The Defense Ministry said dozens of suspected militants have been killed or captured over the past three weeks, and that Yemeni troops and allied tribal fighters seized a string of Al Qaeda-held areas along a 60-mile stretch of highway snaking through the rugged desert mountains of the south, starting from the Mahfad region.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa shut down its premises last week as a precaution against possible retaliatory attacks by militants.
Washington considers Yemen's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- the formal name of the terror network's local branch -- to be the most active in the world, and has assisted the Yemeni government with logistics, training and drone attacks.
Al Qaeda militants have fought back, targeting government buildings and security forces.