SANAA // Eighty-two soldiers and 26 Ansar Al Sharia rebel fighters have died in two days of fighting in southern Yemen.
The death toll is the worst so far in clashes between government forces and the Islamist militant group linked to Al Qaeda.
The rebels seized the 31st Brigade military base in Abayan in southern Zinjibar on Sunday, capturing at least 51 soldiers and destroying seven tanks. They also seized a large cache of heavy weapons including rocket launchers, mortars, armoured vehicles, tanks and machineguns.
Ansar Al Sharia's casualties were low and at least six were not Yemeni, including a Saudi and a Somali, a senior security official said. The militants are still in control of the base.
Sanaa sent 400 reinforcements to the border of Abayan and neighbouring Adren province.
"Our goal is to keep all parts of the country safe. The power transfer period will be full of dangers but we are up to the challenges," said Ali Obaid, a military spokesman. Yemen has a transitional government under the interim presidency of Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, following the forced departure of Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years as president.
Bad weather and sand storms made it almost impossible for the air force to reinforce their troops on the ground yesterday.
Senior security officials accused Mahdi Makwalah, the former military commander of the southern region, of helping Ansar Al Sharia and giving them classified intelligence after he was fired on Sunday.
"It's not a coincidence that the day Makwalah was dismissed from his post Al Qaeda suddenly kill more than 80 troops and seize enough weapons to continue fighting for months," one security official in Abyan said.
"Makwalah is indirectly responsible for the deaths of the troops killed in Abyan over the past 48 hours."
Zaed Jaber, director of the Strategic Studies programme at Sheba Centre for Strategic Studies in Sanaa, told The National the success that militant groups are having in Abyan was no surprise.
"The militants know exactly where to attack and powerful security forces who were loyal to the former president are logistically aiding Ansar Al Sharia fighters," said Mr Jaber.
He said the first couple of months of Mr Hadi's term were sure to be full of obstacles and challenges. "Al Qaeda is strong only because influential officials make it strong. This will end soon with the efforts of the new leadership," Mr Jaber said.
After Mr Hadi vowed to keep up the fight against extremism in a speech during his swearing-in ceremony last month, Al Qaeda stepped up its offensive against the army, killing more than 110 troops in less than 10 days.
"Continuation of the war against Al Qaeda is a religious and national duty," Mr Hadi said.
Al Qaeda is a major threat and a test to Mr Hadi and the transitional government.
Youths in Aden are organising protests calling on the president to intervene and save the city from what they call the "pits of hell" - one of the slogans chanted by protesters in demonstrations aimed at forcing Mr Saleh from power.
Ansar Al Sharia said last year their priority was to create an Islamist state in the shape of a crescent starting with the southern provinces of Abyan, Aden, and Lahj.
Mr Hadi's spokesman said: "It's not over yet. President Hadi is insistent to lead Yemen to prosperity. He has only been in power for less than two weeks."