- Associated Press - Monday, May 14, 2012

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni warplanes pounded al Qaeda fighters on Monday, killing at least 16, while seven soldiers died in clashes with militants in the country’s troubled south where the army is trying to uproot the terror group, military officials said.

The fighting came a day after government bombings of al Qaeda positions killed at least 30 militants. The strikes are part of the military’s broader campaign against the militants who seized towns and territory across southern Yemen over the past year, taking advantage of a security vacuum linked to the country’s political turmoil that pushed longtime authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

In one of Monday’s attacks, Yemeni warplanes struck an al Qaeda hideout about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the southern city of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. The bombardment killed at least 10 militants, the officials said.

In Zinjibar itself, clashes between the two sides left seven troops dead on Monday, according to the officials. The military, backed by heavy artillery, has recently pushed into Zinjibar and regained control over some parts of the city.


Government warplanes also fired missiles at a moving vehicle on the outskirts of another southern town, Lawder, killing six militants inside it, the officials said. The town was controlled by al Qaeda last year until its residents drove out the militants, who have since been trying to stage a comeback. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Much of the fighting between the government and al Qaeda is concentrated around Zinjibar and another Abyan town, Jaar, where al Qaeda has held sway since March 2011. If the military were to reclaim the two strongholds, it would deal a severe blow to the militants, leaving them scattered in remote mountain areas away from urban centers.

A military official said one warplane on Monday missed its target in Jaar, accidentally shooting at civilians and wounding two children.

The intensifying war against al Qaeda in Yemen — which the U.S. says is one of the terror network’s most active — is a top priority for Saleh’s successor and former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Hadi took office in February in a U.S.-backed power transfer deal and has since ramped up the fight against al Qaeda. American drones have also been involved in the campaign, targeting militant leaders.

On Sunday, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, met with Hadi in the capital Sanaa. Hadi’s office said the Yemeni leader briefed Brennan on the army’s progress against al Qaeda in the south.

Brennan, who also met with the head of Yemen’s military, reiterated Washington’s strong commitment to Hadi’s efforts to stabilize the country, and said the Yemeni leader is making “historical decisions during these critical times in modern day Yemen,” according to a statement released by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Also Monday, other Yemeni officials said an oil pipeline in Marib province was blown up about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Sanaa. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason as the military officials, said they suspected al Qaeda militants were behind the attack.

Later in the day, suspected al Qaeda militants also blew up a natural gas pipeline in Shabwa province for the fourth time in the last three months, military officials said. The last blast to the pipeline was late last month and repairs were almost done when it was attacked again, the officials said.

Successive attacks on oil pipelines have led Yemen’s state-run oil firm Safer to shut down production of nearly 50,000 barrels of crude a day.

Oil Minister Hisham Sharaf Abdullah said Monday the repeated attacks on the different pipelines have cost the country $2.5 billion.