- Associated Press - Saturday, March 31, 2012

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al Qaeda-linked militants staged a surprise attack on a Yemeni army base in the south Saturday, setting off clashes that left 30 dead on both sides before air strikes forced the militants to retreat, military officials said.

The attack reflects how al Qaeda’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 militants have overran cities and towns as the government focused its efforts on protecting the regime in the capital during protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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Saleh’s replacement, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has made fighting al Qaeda one of his top priorities, but many Yemenis accuse the ousted president, whose loyalists are still influential in the military and in government bodies, of undercutting security operations and the new president’s authority.

In Saturday’s clashes, army officials said the militants attacked the base in al-Mallah town in southern Lahj province. The town is close to Abyan province, an al Qaeda stronghold.

The army fought back and by the time fighter jets were called in and forced the militants to retreat, 17 soldiers and 13 militants were dead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Al-Mallah is adjacent to Abyan province, an al Qaeda stronghold.

The latest clashes come as Washington appears to be increasingly involved in fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known and which is believed to have plotted two failed attacks on American soil.

On Friday, unmanned U.S. drones targeted al Qaeda positions inside Shabwa province, another militant hideout, killing four militants, Yemeni officials said.

There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials, but Washington has carried out deadly airstrikes in Yemen in the past. Last year, a U.S. drone strike killed U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and a second American, Samir Khan, an al Qaeda propagandist.

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