SANA'A //About 30 Yemeni soldiers and about 16 Islamist militants and suspected Al Qaeda militants were killed and dozens wounded yesterday in clashes in the southern province of Abyan.
Officials said the heavy fighting erupted over control of a football stadium near Zinjibar. Militants besieged about 70 soldiers in the stadium, which had been used for supplying troops fighting to dislodge the militants from Zinjibar, said security officials and local sources.
Government warplanes were called in to shell the militants in order to lift the siege and allow the soldiers to escape.
The battle at the stadium has been described as one of the fiercest since the gunmen last month gained control of Abyan's capital city, now considered one of the main strongholds of Al Qaeda militants.
While government officials said the militants took control of the city, opposition officials said the government forces withdrew to re-inforce their claim that the country will deteroriate into civil war without the political leadership of President Ali Abudullah Saleh.
The militants are now said to be operating openly in the lawless south, training with live ammunition and controlling roads with checkpoints.
Army troops, backed by warplanes, have been battling the militants who control Zinjibar, Jaar and al Kawd cities in Abyan for the past month.
Yesterday, there were reports that five civilians were killed and 12 others wounded when a Yemeni jet bombed a passenger bus, travelling on the road linking Abyan with Aden, by mistake.
Ahmed Al Rahwi, deputy governor of Abyan, said the army troops are engaged in fierce battles against the militants who are not homogenous.
"There are between 500 and 600 fighters. These militants are not homogenous and they include Jihadists, Al Qaeda and even unemployed people," Mr Al Rahwi said.
He estimates more than 100 of the militants have been killed and wounded, while dozens were captured since the battle erupted.
Esam Ali, a resident of Jaar, said there has been almost daily shelling the militant stronghold in Abyan. He said yesterday's raid on Jaar targeted the home of Abdulatif al Sayed, one of the leading militants and wounded three civilians, including a child.
Yemen's defence ministry officials said more than fifteen militants were killed earlier this week in battles in Abyan.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen's Al Qaeda offshoot, has intensified activities in south as the country's cash-strapped government struggles in the grip of five months of protests demanding the ouster of the president.
In Aden, a military officer was killed Tuesday evening by a bomb planted in his car, said security officials. A huge explosion shaking al Mansurah district ripped the car of Colonel Khalid al Hubaishi, killing him and damaging nearby houses, said residents.
Meanwhile, more than 300 members of Yemen's security forces have defected and joined the anti-regime protesters.
Dozens of the defectors in uniform were at Change Square, in front of Sana'a University, on Tuesday evening to announce their defection and support for the youth-led revolution. Some of them stood on the stage and told protesters via loud speakers that 150 of the soldiers belonged to the Republican Guards, an elite army regiment led by Mr Saleh's son, Brigadier General Ahmed Saleh. They said another 130 belong to Central Security, which is led by Mr Saleh's nephew.
No government officials were available to comment on the defection, which would represent a serious blow to Mr Saleh who remains in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment of wounds sustained in an attack of his palace on June 3.
The defections are the latest in a series by military forces since an uprising against Saleh's rule began in February.
Most prominent was the defection in March of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen, who has since sent in his troops to guard protesters in Sana'a.
email@example.com with additional reporting from Associated Press