SANAA: Yemeni troops took control of the city of Shuqra on Friday after Al Qaeda fighters pulled out, the third militant bastion in the south to fall in the space of a week, a military official said.
“The army has taken control of Shuqra,” said a military official, adding that “troops have taken positions in the centre” of the coastal city while militants fled.
He said advancing troops killed 27 militants in gun battles overnight, after state media reported at least 48 people, including 40 militants, were killed during the day on Thursday.
A local official said Al Qaeda fighters “pulled out towards Azzan,” in Shabwa province, some 110 kilometres to the northeast, and a stronghold of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen branch of the organisation.
The official said militants fled after the army “tightened the noose from three fronts.” In an indication that government forces appear set to hunt the militants to Shabwa, witnesses said air forces struck the Saqah mountains, between the towns of Rawdah and Hawta, which are also Al Qaeda bastions close to Azzan, witnesses said.
They said that militants have hideouts in the mountain.
Shuqra was the last major Al Qaeda stronghold in Abyan province to fall to government forces, which launched an all out offensive last month that had already resulted in the recapture of the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar.
The militants remain in control of the smaller town of Al Mahfad.
The defence ministry news website 26Sep.net confirmed the recapture of Shuqra, adding that units from several army brigades, as well as the elite Republican Guard and local anti Qaeda militiamen, took part in the attack.
General Mohammed Labuza, deputy chief of staff for armament, said the “terrorists received painful blows,” adding that air forces were “dealing with criminal elements on the run.” The official Saba news agency said the air force had launched around 100 raids against militants holed up in the city.
On Tuesday, the military drove the jihadists out of the provincial capital of Zinjibar and Jaar, with Al Qaeda gunmen believed to have fled east to Shuqra.
Taking advantage of the weakening of central government control by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year, the fighters had overrun most of Abyan, seizing Zinjibar, Jaar, Shuqra and several villages.
On May 12, the army launched an all-out offensive to recapture territory lost to the jihadists.
A total of 567 people have died in the campaign-429 Al Qaeda fighters, 78 soldiers, 26 militiamen and 34 civilians-according to an the media.
In Shuqra, hundreds of soldiers and local militiamen, known as the Local Coordination Committees, set up checkpoints as residents took to the streets to welcome government forces.
“Now our problems are finished. The extremists were the reason for all the trouble,” Shuqra resident Ali Al Abyani said by telephone.
He said people welcomed the army with national chants, as some fired their guns in celebration.
The recapture of Jaar and Zinjibar on Tuesday came just hours before the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution threatening sanctions against groups seen as undermining Yemen's political transition.
The main targets of Resolution 2051 were the family and supporters of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they were not named in the text, diplomats in New York said.
Saleh has been accused by his opponents of allowing Al Qaeda to take hold of large swathes of the country's south and east and of meddling in the new government's affairs.
The resolution also backed President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who pledged to destroy Al Qaeda when he was sworn in as Saleh's successor in February.
In other unrest, Yemeni forces killed 15 Al Qaeda fighters in a clash at a control station in Shabwa province on the country's only gas export pipeline, a military official and a witness said.
The incident took place on Thursday night, when the militants attacked Station Nine on the pipeline in the eastern province, where the fighters network remains active, the military official said.