Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing stepped up attacks on Yemeni and Western targets last year [EPA]

Ten soldiers have been killed by al-Qaeda fighters who attacked three military vehicles in southern Yemen, security officials say.

The army patrol cars were attacked on Friday in Lawdar, a city in the province of Abyan where several military raids against suspected al-Qaeda fighters took place last year.

“According to eyewitnesses, two army vehicles were ambushed by more than 15 suspected militants from al-Qaeda and they attacked them,” Mohammed Al-Qadhi, a columnist at the Yemen Times, told Al Jazeera.

"Abyan has been a stage for confrontation between the army and Al-Qaeda militants and many soldiers have been killed in such attacks ... and al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for some of these attacks," he said.

The fighters used rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns and two military vehicles were burned in the attack.

The army vehicles had been escorting a lorry carrying food supplies to military bases in the area.

Mostafa Ahmed, the Lawdar health department chief, confirmed to the AFP news agency that the bodies of five soldiers were taken into a hospital morgue. He also said that a civilian who was passing by at the time was wounded in the attack.

In November, a day after the state kicked off a regional soccer cup, a roadside bomb in Lawdar killed one soldier and wounded two others riding in a military vehicle.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an arm of al-Qaeda thought to include Yemenis and Saudis, stepped up attacks on Yemeni and Western targets last year.

The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, has been under pressure to confront the group more vigorously, with US backing. Pressure mounted after two US-bound parcel bombs were intercepted in Britain and Dubai in October, a plot claimed by AQAP.

In the past five years, US military assistance to Yemen has totalled about $250 million.

According to US officials, military aid to Yemen for 2011 alone would reach $250 million.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies