At least seven people have been killed after fighters linked to al-Qaeda attacked Yemeni troops guarding a town briefly seized by the fighters earlier this year, officials say.
The attack on Radda, a town in al-Baydah province 170km southeast of the capital Sanaa, comes amid a major Yemeni army offensive on al-Qaeda strongholds further to the south.
The Yemeni defence ministry said four fighters and three soldiers died during the attack late on Wednesday night.
Fighters linked to al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), briefly seized Radda in January but left the town after striking a deal with the authorities.
AQAP-linked Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic law) said Wednesday’s clash began after government troops surrounded the home of a resident named Nassr al-Hattam and pounded it with tank fire.
In an emailed statement, it said Ansar al-Sharia dispatched fighters who attacked troops surrounding the house and a Republican Guard checkpoint at the entrance of Radda. Several soldiers were killed or wounded, it said.
Also on Wednesday, an army official said 20 fighters and seven soldiers died when government troops fought off an ambush by fighters on the western edge of Jaar.
The US has grown concerned over security in Yemen after fighters overran several towns in the south of the country during a popular uprising last year that severely weakened central government authority and eventually put an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency.
Government troops have since regained control of some parts of Abyan, including parts of the provincial capital Zinjibar, and now surround the town of Jaar, another fighters’ stronghold, Yemeni officials say.
“The Yemeni army is deploying with proper means for the first time,” said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Sanaa.
“They have troops on the ground, air strikes and support from the Americans … But defeating [al-Qaeda-linked fighters] is not going to be an easy task.”
The US, which sees AQAP as a threat to international security, has thrown its weight behind Yemen’s new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The US has also stepped up drone attacks against groups it suspects may be plotting against it. It has also renewed military training to help Yemeni security forces against al-Qaeda.