The Yemeni army drove al-Qaeda-linked fighters from two of their main strongholds on Tuesday after weeks of fighting, the Defense Ministry said, a major breakthrough for a U.S.-backed offensive meant to secure stability in the wider oil-rich Gulf region.
Jubilant residents took to the streets of the provincial capital of Zinjibar and the strategic city of Jaar in spontaneous celebrations after militants from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), who had held the two southern cities for more than a year, fled advancing Yemeni troops.
"I am now speaking from the local government headquarters in Zinjibar," Major General Salem Qatan, commander of the southern region, told Reuters by telephone. "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 of political turmoil that has taken the country to the brink of civil war, raised questions about its territorial integrity, and fuelled fears about al Qaeda's presence in a country that is next door to Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.
Ali Saeed Obeid, a military spokesman, told Reuters the fall of Jaar was "an astounding defeat for al Qaeda".
The Defense Ministry said the army, backed by local fighters from popular committees, had entered Jaar on Tuesday morning after heavy fighting that killed at least 20 militants, four soldiers and two civilians. At least 20 Yemeni soldiers were also wounded in the fighting, it said.
Under pressure from Washington to quell the militants, the victory is likely to be seen as evidence that the army - which was seen as split between an old guard loyal to the country's former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and a new guard seen as closer to his successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - is healing its divisions.
The first signs that the militants had been routed came at dawn, when Muslim worshippers heading to prayers noticed that the gunmen who had ruled the city for more than a year had disappeared.
The militants had left behind flyers asking inhabitants 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," Aqel told the website.
Emboldened by waning government control over the impoverished country during last year's popular protests that ousted Saleh, militants seized Jaar in March 2011, going on to seize Zinjibar and the coastal town of Shaqra.
MILITANTS "CUT OFF"
U.S. officials say that President Hadi - who came to power in February after Saleh signed a power-transfer deal brokered by the Gulf states - is more cooperative in the fight against Islamist militancy than his predecessor.
Analysts have suggested that Saleh deliberately gave al Qaeda a free rein in the south during protests against his 33 years in office in a cynical and failed attempt to convince Washington he should remain in power to deal with the threat.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is believed to be the most active branch of the global network and has plotted a number of botched attempts against U.S. targets.
The United States has, however, limited its intervention to drone strikes, mostly hitting high-value targets, as well as training the Yemeni military.
Government troops launched their campaign to recapture the southern towns early in May, engaging in sustained clashes that left hundreds of militants and soldiers dead.
Jaar, described as the breadbasket of Abyan province, occupies a strategically-important location at a major crossroads between Yemen's main port of Aden and the north.
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. The road is the main link between Aden and the northern parts of Abyan province.
In the town of Shaqra - which is further along the coast to the east - the official said troops had cornered the Islamist 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 Defense 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.