ADEN, (Reuters) – Five suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in air raids in Yemen, and troops killed another two insurgents on Saturday, officials said, in a new U.S.-backed offensive aimed at reasserting control in the south of the country.
An air strike destroyed a vehicle used by militants, killing its two passengers, in the southern province of Bayda, the provincial governor, Mohammed al-Ameri, told a Defence Ministry website.
On the outskirts of the southern city of Jaar, which is held by al Qaeda-linked militants, another air strike killed three militants, a local official told Reuters. Many previous air strikes have been carried out by U.S. drones.
“There is heavy fighting, and the armed elements are doing everything possible to stop the advance of troops,” the official said, adding government forces were about 1 km (0.6 mile) from Jaar.
The Defence Ministry earlier told journalists in a text message that government forces had killed two militants and captured six others outside Jaar.
Insurgents in the south of the impoverished Arab country exploited months of unrest during mass protests last year against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large swathes of territory.
A growing Islamist insurgency in Yemen is of serious concern to the United States and oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which both fear political infighting could give al Qaeda’s regional wing a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Washington has stepped up drone attacks in Yemen since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office in February, and the Pentagon said earlier this month it had resumed sending military trainers to the Arab state.
On Friday, an army official and residents said troops backed by local tribesmen had killed 10 suspected Islamist militants outside Jaar, whose residents have been told by the military to leave or head to secure areas as the army advanced.
Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda retreated on Thursday from the town of Lawder, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Jaar, as warplanes attacked and ground troops advanced on insurgent-held towns.