Yemeni officials say al-Qaida militants fighting off army's attempt to retake besieged village

SAN'A, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida militants holed up in a village in south Yemen on Wednesday fought off repeated attempts by government troops backed by tanks and heavy artillery to retake the besieged town, officials said.

Thousands of people have fled Hawta and the surrounding area in Shabwa province since security forces laid siege to the village three days ago. The operation signals an escalation in the government's U.S.-backed campaign to uproot the terror network's local offshoot, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Shabwa officials said at least four al-Qaida fighters and a civilian have been killed since the fighting began Saturday, while medical officials said at least nine soldiers have been wounded in the past two days. More than two dozen suspected militants have been detained.

The government operation, which aims to uproot a 120-man militant cell, comes after several attacks by al-Qaida fighters against Yemeni security forces at checkpoints and security outposts.

"The forces are involved in fierce battles to cleanse the Hawta area from those elements that turned these desert areas into their training and hiding centers, and who have taken residents as human shields," Shabwa security chief Ahmed al-Maqdashi said.

Government forces launched multiple assaults on the village Wednesday, but failed to break down its defenses.

In one attempt, Yemeni troops tried to repel from helicopters into the village but met with fierce resistance, two Hawta residents said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear for their security. They said four soldiers were wounded and were rushed away in ambulances.

In another attempt, six soldiers were wounded by militant sniper fire as they tried to mount barricades put up by the militants on the town's outskirts, local officials said.

Medical officials confirmed that nine soldiers are being treated at the provincial hospital.

A military official said the militants are using sniper fire and land mines to keep the soldiers at bay, forcing the army to adjust its tactics.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to comment on operational details.

Despite the difficulties, government officials have sought to praise the offensive.

Shabwa governor Ali al-Ahmadi said troops have arrested a group of gunmen currently under investigation. He said only three soldiers were wounded, while four al-Qaida militants and one civilian were killed in the operation. Al-Ahmadi said the civilian was shot by the militants.

Al-Maqdashi, the area security chief, said 28 militants were arrested.

Yemen's government has struggled to wrest control of areas in the south from powerful tribes, some of which are sympathetic to al-Qaida and other Islamic militants roaming the area.

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world and is beset by other major internal security threats — an on-and-off rebellion on the north and a separate secessionist movement in the south.

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