Fresh clashes between al-Qaida fighters and government forces in Yemen left 17 dead on Sunday, military officials said, as the army pushed on with an offensive to regain a key town in the county's south that fell to the militants more than a year ago.
Officials said eight al-Qaida fighters, four soldiers and five civilian volunteers fighting alongside the military were killed since the early hours of Sunday.
The army started a two-pronged attack on the town of Jaar on Friday. It is part of a broader assault to take back Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, which has been also under al-Qaida control for more than a year.
Al-Qaida-linked fighters took advantage of Yemen's 2011 uprising to overrun a swath of territory and several towns in the south, pushing out government forces and establishing their own rule. In recent weeks, the army has launched a concerted effort to uproot the militants from their strongholds — and is closely coordinating with a small contingent of U.S. troops who are helping guide the operations from inside Yemen.
Officials say U.S. drones have been providing information to their forces.
The military officials said Yemeni warplanes pounded targets some five kilometers (three miles) outside Jaar. Up to 70 percent of Jaar's residents have fled the town over the past months to escape the fighting.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations, said the militants used suicide car bombing against military checkpoints and vehicles to hinder the army's advance and had called for reinforcements from neighboring towns.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took office in February as part of a U.S.- and Saudi-backed deal aimed at ending the unrest. He has made fighting al-Qaida one of his top priorities.
The official news agency SABA said Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, a U.S. commanding general of special operations, met Saturday with Yemen's chief of staff Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali al-Ashwal and discussed U.S. aid to Yemen in combating terrorism and the fight against al-Qaida.
Tovo later met with the commander of the Yemeni southern sector in Aden to discuss details of the operations in the south, a Yemeni military statement said.
Meanwhile Yemen's Defense Minister Major General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, who is directly supervising the operations in the south, paid a 24-hour visit to Saudi Arabia and returned to the Yemeni capital Sanaa Sunday.
A government official said Yemen was seeking military hardware aid from Saudi Arabia to enable it to keep up the momentum of the operations against al-Qaida. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
On Sunday, the party of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh said he has been admitted to a hospital for regular checkups and minor procedures.
The statement by the General People's Congress didn't provide further details or say to which hospital was the 69-year-old Saleh admitted.
Saleh had spent time in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. earlier this year for medical treatment for wounds sustained in a June assassination attempt that left much of his body burnt. Saleh stepped down in February and was replaced by his deputy, Hadi.
But Hadi and other political groups in Yemen have complained that Saleh, the country's ruler for 33 years, has continued to play a behind-the-scenes role in local affairs, impeding the new president's efforts to implement a reform program.