Yemen’s army seized control of major Al-Qaeda stronghold Azzan in the southern province of Shabwa as an offensive against militants entered its tenth day Thursday, the defence ministry announced.
It also announced that the army had killed four fighters it said were local leaders of the extremist group in clashes in Shabwa and neighbouring Abyan province.
“Armed and security forces have entered Azzan,” the second-largest city in Shabwa, the ministry said in a statement, quoting a military official.
A local government official in Shabwa confirmed that “army forces have entered Azzan without resistance” from Al-Qaeda fighters who “withdrew to Al-Koor,” a mountainous region nearby.
The official told AFP that “an agreement was reached between local tribal dignitaries and Al-Qaeda, allowing militants to withdraw without fighting in order to spare the city bloodshed and destruction”.
In Abyan, fresh clashes erupted on Thursday around Wadi Dhiqa, said a member of the Popular Resistance Committees who have been fighting alongside the army.
Militants had fled Wadi Dhiqa, their stronghold, on Tuesday and had returned in bid to recapture it, the militiaman said.
“Dozens of fighters came back from surrounding mountains seeking to retake the region. They opened fire at soldiers who responded,” he said.
The defence ministry meanwhile reported Thursday that four local leaders of Al-Qaeda, among them a Kuwaiti identified as Abu Musaab, were killed in clashes with troops in the two provinces.
It identified the other three as Abu Walid al-Humaiqani, Khaled al-Oudeini and Abu Adel al-Kaldi but gave no further details.
The offensive began on April 29 in the country’s rugged southern and central provinces, where a wave of US drone strikes killed scores of suspected Al-Qaeda militants last month.
The defence ministry in its Thursday statement said the extremists were being pushed back by government forces.
“Security and stability are gradually returning to regions which have been cleansed of terrorists” in Maifaa, a Shabwa region where troops claimed killing scores of suspected militants on Sunday and Mahfad in Abyan.
At least 79 militants and more than 24 soldiers have died in the latest fighting, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Authorities from May 1 however stopped providing figures on troop casualties.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been linked to a number of failed terror plots against the United States, and its leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi recently appeared in a rare video in which he vowed to attack Western “crusaders” wherever they are.
The jihadists took advantage of a 2011 uprising that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power to seize large swathes of southern and eastern Yemen.
The army recaptured several major towns in 2012 but has struggled to reassert control in rural areas, despite the backing of militiamen recruited among local tribes.