SANAA – Heavy clashes overnight between al-Qaida-linked militants and the Yemeni military in the country's south have killed 63 people, bringing the two-day death toll in the fighting to 127, army officials said Tuesday.
The latest fighting points to an escalating hostilities between the government and militants linked to the terror network who have sought to take advantage of the turmoil roiling the country since a popular uprising began early last year against longtime authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The militants seized control of towns in the lawless south and staged attacks against government troops there and elsewhere in the impoverished Arab nation.
The military officials said the fighting that broke out in the town of Lawder in Abyan province early Monday spilled over into Tuesday, with the army shelling militant hideouts in an effort to prevent them from sending reinforcements.
They said 56 militants, four soldiers and three tribal fighters were killed overnight and early Tuesday.
Fighting also erupted Tuesday along the border of Shabwa and Marib provinces, where militants ambushed an army post. Eight soldiers and three militants were killed in that attack, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Al-Qaida was once present in Lawder, but in July residents drove them out. A few months later al-Qaida 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-Qaida stronghold, to the provinces of Hadramawt, Bayda and Shabwa where the group is active.
The area is now a patchwork of government- and militant-controlled towns.
Inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, Yemen's popular uprising forced Saleh out of office in February. His successor and former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a single-candidate nationwide vote that was part of a power transfer deal backed by the U.S. and Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
Washington hopes that Hadi can bolster the government's authority and make good on his pledges to fight al-Qaida. But in addition to his war with the militants, he also faces a challenge from Saleh loyalists and a crippled economy.