By AHMED AL-HAJ, Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni government forces regained control of a strategic gateway in the south on Tuesday after intense, three-day shelling of al-Qaida hideouts in the area that left 43 militants dead, military and medical officials said.
The military had stepped up attacks and airstrikes against al-Qaida in the mountainous area of al-Rahha in the southern province of Lahj, a strategically important region that links the south with Yemen's northern cities.
The offensive followed two consecutive surprise attacks by militants on Yemeni army bases in the area.
The military officials told The Associated Press that the government forces are trying to reclaim key cities in Aden and Abyan provinces in the south that have been overrun by al-Qaida. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Qaida-linked militants have taken advantage of a year of internal political turmoil and security vacuum in Yemen to expand their gains in the country's south. The militants have seized several towns and cities and entire swaths of land, and the military's campaign has so far not managed to retake those areas.
Yemen's uprising, inspired by Arab Spring revolts elsewhere, forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February. His successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote. Hadi has vowed to fight al-Qaida while restructuring the armed forces in which Saleh's loyalists and family members still hold key posts.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots.
In February, it claimed credit for a daring assault on another military base in the south that left nearly 200 soldiers dead. The fighters riddled tents where soldiers were sleeping near the town of Zinjibar with gunfire, then paraded dozens of captured soldiers through a nearby town.