Yemeni forces have launched an operation to drive al-Qaeda fighters out of southern towns, where air raids have killed nearly 60 fighters in recent days, military officials say.
Army troops backed by local militia members had moved in to "purge" the towns of Ahwar and al-Mahfad, in Abyan province, and Azzan, al-Houta, al-Rawda and al-Saeed in Shabwa province, a military official said on Tuesday.
"The campaign will not stop until these areas are purged of al-Qaeda militants," said official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, according to AFP news agency.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established strongholds in towns and rugged zones in Abyan and Shabwa provinces after security forces chased them from major cities in Abyan in 2012.
Government forces clashed on Tuesday with fighters in the Lahmar area, which overlooks al-Mahfad, a military commander said.
Other clashes took place near al-Saeed as al-Qaeda fighters confronted advancing government forces, other military sources said.
Hussein al-Wuhayshi, a leader of the Popular Committees armed groups that had fought in the past alongside government forces, said his fighters were taking part in the attack.
"There is an official decision to uproot al-Qaeda from Abyan and Shabwa," he said.
Officials spoke last week of an "unprecedented" US and aerial campaign against al-Qaeda fighters in the area after two days of strikes.
Yemen and US drone attacks last week targeted bases of AQAP, considered by the US to be the most dangerous affiliate of the global network with links to several failed terror plots against the West.
The Yemeni Interior Ministry said last week that air raids on April 20 in Abyan province killed 55 al-Qaeda fighters, while three others were killed in a strike in Shabwa.
A day earlier, a drone strike in the central Bayda province killed 10 al-Qaeda suspects and three civilians.