SANAA, YEMEN — Fierce fighting between soldiers and al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen killed at least 42 people Wednesday, as families fled past destroyed homes, burning cars and streets littered with corpses, witnesses and officials said.
The fighting in the town of Azzan in Shabwa province comes amid an ongoing army offensive against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s local branch of the terror group that the U.S. considers the world’s most dangerous.
Al-Qaida militants tried to retake the town in a dawn attack as government warplanes and naval forces bombed militants hiding in homes, officials said. Soldiers battled militants for hours in street-to-street clashes.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Seif al-Yafie said that the fighting killed at least 30 al-Qaida militants, including six of the local leaders of the terror group. He did not offer casualty figures for government forces.
Yemeni security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists, said the clashes killed at least 12 government troops. It wasn’t immediately clear if there were civilian casualties.
Al-Yafie also said al-Qaida militants used child soldiers in the fighting, without elaborating.
The military warned residents by loudspeaker to either leave the town or not to provide shelter to militants during the fighting.
Mahmoud al-Ayashi, a resident who fled the town with his family, said that the bombardment from the two sides turned the town into an inferno.
“This town has seen so many battles before but this is the worst,” he said. “I saw cars on fire, bodies in the streets, including those in military uniform.”
Al-Ayashi said he saw whole families packing belongings into their cars to flee.
Al-Qaida fighters have been retreating from areas they held in the face of the southern offensive, which has focused mostly on the provinces of Shabwa and Marib, east of the capital, Sanaa.
The Defense Ministry said dozens of suspected militants have been killed or captured over the past three weeks. Yemeni troops and allied tribal fighters have seized a string of al-Qaida-held areas along a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of highway snaking through the rugged desert mountains of the south, starting from the Mahfad region.
In an apparent retaliatory attack Wednesday, a senior intelligence official in the southern city of Mukalla was gunned down in front of his house in a drive-by shooting, officials said.
In Sanaa, security forces and anti-terrorism forces stormed a house and arrested dozens of suspects amid beefed-up security measures in the capital.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is blamed for a number of unsuccessful bomb plots aimed at Americans, including an attempt to bring down a U.S.-bound airliner with explosives hidden in the bomber’s underwear and a second plot to send mail bombs hidden in the toner cartridges on planes headed to the U.S.
It overran territory in Yemen’s south in 2011. Yemen’s army, supported by U.S. military experts and drone strikes, has pushed them back, but clashes and al-Qaida attacks in Yemen persist.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa shut down its premises last week as a precaution against possible retaliatory attacks by militants. On April 24, two officers at the U.S. Embassy getting haircuts at a Sanaa barbershop killed two suspected al-Qaida gunmen. The New York Times has reported that the Americans were a CIA officer and a lieutenant colonel with the elite Joint Special Operations Command.