- Yemen's Defense Ministry says thousands of land mines were planted by al Qaeda militants
- At least 73 people, including 23 soldiers, have been killed by the mines, the ministry says
- Local residents say many more people have been injured by mine explosions
- Ministry: The militants planted the mines to retaliate for defeat by government forces
Land mine explosions have killed at least 73 people in Yemen's Abyan province since al Qaeda fighters were defeated two weeks ago, the Yemeni Defense Ministry said. Among those killed were 23 soldiers.
The ministry said that tens of thousands of land mines were planted before militants were driven out of their key strongholds, as an ambush to retaliate for their defeat.
A senior Defense Ministry official told CNN that more than 200 experts are involved in the mine removal operation, but he would not give a deadline for when the province would be mine-free.
"Al Qaeda had more than a year to plan and plant the land mines, so it will take time. We are also in dire need of modern detecting devices," the official told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to media.
Residents in Abyan told CNN that the injury toll from mines is far greater than those killed.
They said that most mines were planted near government institutions, military compounds, checkpoints, and mountainous roads. "With every person killed, four or five are injured. Hospitals in Abyan and neighboring Aden are full of land mine victims," Ali Hadi, a resident of Zinjibar, told CNN.
"Zinjibar is still empty though, al Qaeda is nowhere to be seen. People know their lives are still at risk but this time from land mines," he added.
Col. Saeed Ali Mishal, head of the engineering unit tasked with clearing the mines, said the government managed to clear 3,119 land mines this week from the towns of Zinjibar, Jaar, and Shuqra.
"Explosions linked to land mines are heard three to four times daily in Zinjibar," said Mishal.
He said that the mines are all locally made and those found have been destroyed.
The increasing death toll complicates government efforts to relocate locals displaced by the war.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, reported that 150,000 people fled Abyan and are stranded in low-capacity shelters.
The displaced currently occupy dozens of schools in Aden and Lahj provinces.
Mohammed al-Saadi, Yemen's minister of international affairs, said one of the government's main priorities is to rebuild Abyan, after the year-long war destroyed thousands of homes.