SANAA, Yemen — Al-Qaida-linked militants staged a dawn attack Monday on a Yemeni army post in the south setting off clashes that left 23 dead on both sides, Yemeni army officials said.
The attack demonstrates how al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has exploited the political and security turmoil following the country's yearlong uprising, managing to take control of large swaths of land in the south and staging increasingly bold attacks on the military.
The officials said the militants attacked an army position in the town of Lawder in Abyan province, where al-Qaida fighters are very active.
They said the dead included 18 militants and five soldiers, including a colonel. Three soldiers were wounded.
Members of armed popular anti-al-Qaida committees joined the fighting alongside the soldiers. The committees are formed by civilians, mainly from anti-al-Qaida tribes, who oppose the terror group.
A member of one of the committees, Abdullah Amer, said the militants tried to enter Lawder at dawn. Lawder is a strategic town northeast of Zinjibar in Abyan province where al-Qaida fighters still control some areas.
He said fierce fighting raged for hours before the militants were forced to retreat.
The officials said a nearby army brigade sent reinforcements to the army post in Lawder to back up the soldiers during the firefight.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military rules, said three militants were also killed in government heavy shelling of the town of Jaar, near Zinjibar, which is still under the militants control.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots.
Al-Qaida and other militant groups have taken advantage of Yemen's yearlong political turmoil to try to expand their toehold in the country's south and have captured several key cities and towns.
Yemen's uprising, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February. His successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote. Hadi has vowed to fight al-Qaida while restructuring the armed forces, in which Saleh's loyalists and family members still hold key posts.
Hadi, in his attempt to shake-up the military, fired key commanders and relatives of Saleh including the ex-president's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar. The air force commander initially defied the order and seized control of the airport in the capital of Sanaa on Saturday. Al-Ahmar holed himself up in his office before abruptly leaving Sunday as the airport was reopened.