Sana’a: A suicide bomber killed 11 Yemeni soldiers on Monday after troops backed by tanks attacked an Al Qaida stronghold following the collapse of talks to free three Western hostages, local officials and residents said.
Tackling lawlessness in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, which flanks the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, is an international priority. The United States views Yemen as a frontline in its struggle against Al Qaida.
A Finnish couple and an Austrian man, who were studying Arabic in Yemen, were snatched last month by tribesmen in the capital Sana’a. They were later sold to Al Qaida members, and transferred to the southern Al Bayda province, a Yemeni official told Reuters earlier this month.
A government official said the army began its offensive in Al Qaida’s Manasseh stronghold in Al Bayda early on Monday after the militants rejected demands to release the hostages.
Residents said they saw dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles moving at dawn towards Manasseh. “A few hours later, army forces started shelling. We could hear explosions,” a man who gave his name only as Abdullah told Reuters by telephone.
In an apparent reprisal for the offensive, the suicide bomber drove a car laden with explosives into an army checkpoint in Radda, a town near Manasseh. Eleven soldiers were killed and 17 wounded, the defence ministry said. An earlier report from local officials put the death toll at eight.
Militants also ambushed and killed three other soldiers near Radda in a separate attack, according to medics.
No figures were immediately available on militant casualties.
Yemen has struggled to restore normality since President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected in February 2012 following a year of protests that forced his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years in power.
AQAP and other militant groups took advantage of the chaos in the run-up to and aftermath of Saleh stepping down, seizing entire towns and areas in the south.
Under the power transfer deal, Hadi is overseeing reforms for a two-year interim period to ensure a transition to democracy. Presidential and parliamentary elections are expected in 2014.