- Government says six of its forces killed over same 24-hour period in Abyan province
- Troops retook key, posts, forced militants to retreat, defense official says
- Nine airstrikes reported; government says raids will continue
At least 42 suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in Loder, in Yemen's Abyan province, in continuous government bombardment on their hideouts over the last 24 hours, two security officials in the province told CNN on Thursday.
The officials put the death toll of government forces at six over the same period. Earlier this week, militants attacked government posts in Loder, killing at least 29 troops and taking over key military posts in the district.
Troops also clashed with Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group with links to al Qaeda, in the Abyan districts of Jaar, Zinjibar and al-Kod, one official said Thursday. "It's crucial that we uproot the militants before they expand to new areas in the south, and that is why we are attacking on numerous fronts. They are using the political instability in their interests, but our troops will not be shaken," a senior defense ministry official told CNN on condition on anonymity.
He said troops retook key military posts and forced militants to retreat in numerous areas in the province, mainly Zara Mountain, a strategic area overlooking Loder.
The death count is based on tallies of bodies left behind after al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia fled the attacks.
The coordinated government attacks used artillery, tanks and airstrikes. Nine airstrikes were conducted in Loder district Thursday afternoon. The government stressed that raids will continue in what is the most intense phase of attacks by government forces since the February inauguration of Yemen's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Hundreds of pro-government tribal fighters joined the troops vowing not to fight until al Qaeda leaves the district. "Al Qaeda is attacking our homes and seeking to take over our wealth and property. We will fight and sacrifice whatever it takes," said Sultan Abdul Salaam, a pro-government tribal fighter in Loder.
He said that they forced tens of militants to flee the district, leaving behind large caches of artillery. "We lost a lot of men in our clashes, but we have the upper hand and continue to gain ground and man support against the terrorists," Abdul Salaam added.
The military committee, the country's highest security authority, said the government will not allow al Qaeda to expand and will use an iron fist against the militants in the country's southern provinces.
The security situation has also worsened in neighboring Aden province, Yemen's business capital, with militants of Ansar al-Sharia seen roaming main streets unchallenged.
The militant group announced last year its plan to take over Aden and create a crescent-shaped Islamic emirate in three southern Yemeni provinces.