Yemeni government troops have killed 21 al-Qaeda fighters in the latest clashes in the country's south, military officials have said, as the US commended Yemen for successfully routing rebel fighters from some strategic southern strongholds.
The military officials said 17 fighters died in clashes that raged until early morning on Saturday around Azan town in southern Shabwa province.
Six soldiers were wounded in the fighting, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
Four other fighters and one soldier died in fighting on Saturday in the Hassan valley area in the adjoining Abyan province, the officials also said.
The valley is located east of the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which al-Qaeda captured in 2011 and held until recently along with several other towns in Abyan.
Al-Qaeda's fighters took advantage of a security vacuum last year during a popular uprising that ousted Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize swathes of territory in the strategic south.
That raised fears it could use the area as a foothold to launch more attacks on US targets.
Yemen's al-Qaeda offshoot, known as the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on US soil from its hideouts.
It also emerged last month that the CIA thwarted an alleged plot to down a US-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber's underwear.
The planned bomber was actually a double agent who turned the device over to the US government.
The US is helping the Yemenis from a command centre manned by dozens of US troops in the al-Annad air base in the southern desert, not far from the main battle zones.
The White House's semiannual report to Congress on the state of US combat operations abroad, delivered on Friday, admitted that the US military has been taking "direct action" against members of al-Qaeda and affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, without clarifying what kind of methods were used.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Saturday the US commends the success of the Yemenis in retaking important areas of the south, including the cities of Jaar and Zinjibar.
"Al-Qaeda's presence in Abyan has had a devastating impact on the citizens there and prevented the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance desperately needed by the Yemeni people," she said.
On Friday, Yemeni warplanes pounded hideouts in the mountains surrounding Azan, but the officials said casualty figures from those bombings were not available because of the ruggedness of the terrain.
Also on Friday, the Yemeni defence ministry said government troops killed 40 fighters and re-took Shoqra, the last town under al-Qaeda control in Abyan.
Difficult living conditions
In the recently liberated Jaar and Zinjibar, people were trying to leave on Saturday for the nearby Aden province because of difficult living conditions but Jamal al-Aqel, the local governor, urged them to stay put while the army clears out land mines planted by al-Qaeda.
Three people were reported killed on Friday by exploding mines.
Aqel told the AP news agency by telephone from Zinjibar that life was returning to normal gradually after the arrival of police and security forces.
Despite the military advances in the south, officials warned some al-Qaeda fighters who fled to the hinterland could regroup and launch counter-attacks against the army and security forces.