SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni warplanes and troops backed by heavy artillery waged a four-front assault on al Qaeda militants Tuesday, trying to uproot their hold in the south in an offensive Yemeni officials said was for the first time being directly guided by U.S. troops at a nearby air base.
The central U.S. role in the operation would be a significant stepping up of American-Yemeni cooperation against al Qaeda’s branch here, which is accused of a string of attempted attacks against the United States.
The offensive appeared to mark an increased determination to break the hold of al Qaeda in the south, where militants have controlled several towns for nearly a year, including the provincial capital of Zinjibar.
Fierce battles continued overnight Monday and early Tuesday inside Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
Yemen’s ill-equipped and poorly trained military has stumbled repeatedly in trying to fight al Qaeda ever since the militants seized territory during the political turmoil surrounding last year’s uprising that led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The effort is supported by the U.S., which considers al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen the network’s most active. On Sunday, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, met with Mr. Hadi in the capital, Sanaa.
Mr. Hadi’s office later said the Yemeni leader briefed Mr. Brennan on the army’s progress in the south, which Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed described as the “final, decisive battle against al Qaeda.”
Several Yemeni military officials told the Associated Press on Tuesday that unlike previous, failed offensives against al Qaeda, this time the United States was providing direct logistical support to the Yemeni military.
The officials said an air base called al-Annad in the southern province of Lahj is serving as a command center, where nearly 60 U.S. troops are helping advise the Yemenis. They also said the Americans were providing information and logistical support to Yemeni troops.
The Yemeni military officials, who are familiar with the workings of the army in the south, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive cooperation.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa could not be reached for comment.
The Pentagon said a week ago that it had sent military trainers back to Yemen for “routine” counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces.
An American official said the arriving troops are special-operations forces, who work under more secretive arrangements than conventional U.S. troops and whose expertise includes training indigenous forces.
The U.S. military training program in Yemen was suspended last year amid the revolt against Mr. Saleh. Under the former president, Washington had greatly expanded counterterrorism aid, at one point having between 100 and 150 trainers there.