SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni troops killed seven Al Qaeda-linked militants -- including an Iranian, a Pakistani and two Somali nationals -- in the latest fighting in a southern province, a security official said Wednesday.
The official said the military has been shelling two key government buildings in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, after they were overrun by dozens of militants.
Security has collapsed across Yemen during a nine-month popular uprising seeking to topple the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who's been in power for 30 years.
The embattled president's critics accuse Saleh of allowing the militants to take advantage of the security vacuum to support his argument that without him, Al Qaeda would take control of the country.
The security official said the latest round of violence in Zinjibar began late Tuesday and has continued through Wednesday, adding that the seven militants died during the fighting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Wednesday's battle for control of Zinjibar is the latest attempt by Yemen's military to reassert control in the country's restive south. Militants have taken advantage of the turmoil surrounding the popular uprising against Saleh to expand their reach beyond Yemen's remote hinterlands.
Since March, Al Qaeda-linked militants have overrun entire towns in Abyan province, forcing more than 100,000 residents to flee to neighboring provinces where people have sought refuge in schools and makeshift refugee camps.
The months of violence have also killed hundreds of soldiers, according to the Defense Ministry, as well as civilians.
The United States has supported Yemen's military in the south and even carried out its own strikes against Al Qaeda targets there, most notably the killing of Al Qaeda's U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The United States views the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as one of the terror network's most dangerous arms, blaming a string of attempted attacks in the West on militants affiliated with the Yemeni branch.
On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis marched from the capital Sanaa's Change Square, the epicenter of anti-Saleh protests, through various neighborhoods, including near the president's compound. In June, an attack on the residence severely wounded Saleh, forcing him to spend months in neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment.
Witnesses said Saleh's troops fired in the air to try and disperse the crowd Wednesday, but no injuries were reported.
Over 350 people have been killed and thousands wounded in Yemen's protests this year.
"Hey Arab League, we call for our suspension," Yemeni protesters chanted, copying the chant by protesters in Syria recently during the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The 22-member Arab League is set to officially suspend Syria's membership Wednesday for its bloody crackdown on protesters.