Al Mukalla: Yemeni government troops and local tribesmen backed the Saudi-led Arab coalition on Sunday recaptured three major cities from Al Qaida in the southern province of Abyan, including the capital Zinjibar, army officials, tribal leaders and witnesses said.

In the early hours of Saturday, hundreds of troops trained and armed by the Arab coalition in Aden, launched a big military operation to oust Al Qaida militants from the province of Abyan, the last stronghold of the militants group in south Yemen.

By afternoon, the forces seized Zinjibar, Jaar and Kawd.

Speaking to Gulf News from Zinjibar, Sabri Ali, the commander of tribesmen backing the army, said that his forces and the army stormed the three cities after heavy air support from the coalition’ warplanes and helicopters.

“We have completely captured the city of Zinjibar. Troop morale is high,” he said.

Local army officials said that advancing forces including hundreds of former resistance fighters who fought off Al Houthi military expansion last year and later joined intensive military training to push Al Qaida out of Abyan.

Ali also said that some of his fighters took part in military operations against Al Qaida in 2012 and 2013.

Government forces were briefly stalled during the first part of the offensive as the militants detonated several car bombs.

The forces first took Kawd, then Zinjibar and in the afternoon they successfully liberated Jaar.

Taking advantage of a security vacuum as Yemeni troops faced off with Al Houthi militants in the country, Al Qaida stormed many cities in Abyan and neighbouring Shabwa last year.

The mood in Zinjibar was jubilant among residents who received troops with welcoming chants and embraces.

Ramzy Al Fadheli, a media secretary to the commander of Special Security Forces in Aden, Abyan and Lahej, told Gulf News from Zinjibar that the fleeing Al Qaida militants retreated into remove villages in Abyan.

“This military operation is aimed at liberating the coastal regions like Zinjibar, Kawd, Jaar and Shorgah. We have confirmed information that senior Al Qaida militants fled to farms and Al Wadhae and Moudah.”

Residents told Gulf News on Sunday that the Apache helicopters destroyed A Qaida arms depots which stored weapons and vehicles inside the city ahead of the government advance.

“We hear big explosions,” a resident said on Sunday.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s branch of the militant organisation, has suffered major setbacks in south Yemen over the last several months when the government forces regained control of Aden, Lahej, Shabwa and Hadramout.

Interrogations with captured militants have revealed links between Al Qaida and ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh who is allied to Al Houthi militants.

Local army commanders say that it is only a matter of time before the entire Abyan province would be liberated. They believe Al Qaida militants would likely seek shelter in the Al Houthi-controlled Baydha province.