A Yemeni military official says suspected al-Qaida militants have launched a surprise attack on an army checkpoint in a southern city, killing 15 soldiers and wounding five others.

The official said the attackers surprised the soldiers as they were having lunch Friday in the southern city of Shibam in the restive province of Hadramawt.

The soldiers killed a number of the attackers, but the militants took away their bodies when they withdrew, he said, speaking anonymously according to rules.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's branch in Yemen, is considered by Washington as the network's most dangerous offshoot. The group seized large swath of lands in the south before the military launched a major offensive in the summer of 2012, driving many of them out.