ADEN // The Yemeni army drove Al Qaeda-linked fighters from two cities yesterday after weeks of fighting, the defence ministry said.
Residents took to the streets of the provincial capital Zinjibar and the city of Jaar in spontaneous celebrations after militants from Ansar Al Sharia, who had held the two southern cities for more than a year, fled from advancing Yemeni troops.
"I am now speaking from the local government headquarters in Zinjibar," said Major General Salem Qatan, the commander of the southern region. "The cities of Zinjibar and Jaar have been completely cleansed," he said.
The recapture of the two cities is the army's biggest victory against the militants in more than a year.
Ali Saeed Obeid, a military spokesman, said the fall of Jaar was "an astounding defeat for Al Qaeda".
The defence ministry said the army, backed by local fighters, had entered Jaar yesterday morning after heavy fighting had killed at least 20 militants, four soldiers and two civilians. At least 20 Yemeni soldiers were also wounded in the fighting.
The victory is seen as evidence that the army has started to heal its divisions as earlier this year it had been destabilised by factions loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The militants left behind flyers asking people to forgive them, asserting that they had not wanted to "cause any harm to Jaar and its inhabitants", residents said.
A spokesman for Ansar Al Sharia, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, confirmed that the army had taken control of the town of more than 100,000 people and said a statement would be issued later.
Jamal Al Aqel, Abyan's governor, told a defence ministry website that about 200-300 militants, including senior leaders and foreign fighters, had fled Jaar and Zinjibar and that the army was pursuing them.
"We will carry on cleansing the entire province from the terrorist components that undermined security and stability in Abyan," Mr Aqel told the website.
Emboldened by waning government control over the impoverished country during last year's protests that toppled Mr Saleh, militants seized Jaar in March last year, before claiming Zinjibar and the coastal town of Shaqra.
US officials claim that Mr Hadi - who came to power in February after Mr Saleh signed a power-transfer deal brokered by the GCC - is more cooperative in the fight against militancy than his predecessor.
A military official said in a text message that the army has reopened the vital Aden-Jaar road, which had been closed for more than a year.
In the town of Shaqra - which is further along the coast to the east - the official said troops had cornered militants in two locations, adding that warplanes were taking part in the fighting.
"They've put themselves in a small circle because all roads and supply lines to them were cut off," the official said.
The defence ministry said on its websites that the Yemeni navy had sunk 10 boats in which the militants had been planning to flee Shaqra if needed. It gave no figures on casualties.