Yemeni military officials say al-Qaida militants staged an intense assault on a southern town and overran it for several hours before a counter-attack by the army pushed them out.

The officials say Monday's fighting over the town of Mahfad in Abyan province, a former al-Qaida stronghold, lasted for eight hours.

They say the militants took control of the town council building and several army checkpoints and moved in on a key army base. The clashes killed four Yemeni soldiers and seven al-Qaida militants.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Yemen's al-Qaida branch has taken advantage of a deep political crisis roiling the country amid a Shiite rebel power grab, which has plunged it close to full-blown civil war.