By AHMED AL-HAJ
The Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen — A Yemeni air force jet mistakenly bombed a bus Wednesday in a southern town controlled by Islamic militants, killing four people, as clashes between the fighters and government troops left 23 dead on both sides.
Government forces have been trying for days to drive out the fighters who seized Zinjibar last month. The takeover of the town signaled that Islamic militants are taking advantage of the political turmoil that has gripped Yemen since a popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule began in mid-February.
The fighters — some of them believed to be linked to Yemen's al-Qaida branch — have taken over several towns in the south, far from the reach of the central government in the capital, Sanaa.
The airstrike that struck the passenger bus also wounded 12 people, security officials said.
A short while later, militants overran a soccer stadium on the city's outskirts and attacked government troops there, the officials said. The clashes killed 15 security troops. Government warplanes called in again bombed the stadium, killing eight militants.
Several government armored vehicles were destroyed and officials said scores of militants were wounded in the battle.
Also in Zinjibar, officials said militants seized 50 residents, accused them of passing information to the government and locked them inside the governor's office.
Mohammed al-Tumeisy, one of those seized and later released, said his captors had warned he would be executed if he made any contact with the government.
The officials also said government jets on Wednesday bombed the nearby town of Jaar, which was captured by militants in early April. And in the southern port city of Aden, a roadside bomb killed an army colonel late Tuesday.
All the officials giving the accounts of the fighting and casualties spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media.
Residents in the south have accused government forces of showing little appetite for facing down the Islamist extremists. The militants in Zinjibar are operating openly there, training with live ammunition and controlling roads with checkpoints.
Their gains have fueled fears that they are successfully exploiting the power vacuum amid the uprising against Saleh.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Taiz, activist Bushra al-Muktari said the Republican Guards shelled anti-Saleh protesters camped out at a central square early Wednesday, killing one and wounding four demonstrators.
Abdel-Karim al-Shayef, acting governor of Aden, was reported to have defected to Jordan, officials in the governor's office said Wednesday.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for nearly 33 years, left for neighboring Saudi Arabia on June 5 to for treatment of severe wounds he suffered when his compound in the capital, Sanaa, was attacked.
It is not clear when — or if — he will return, deepening uncertainty in the poor nation at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
The political crisis began with protests by largely peaceful crowds that endured a bloody government crackdown. At the end of May, days of street battles broke out in the capital between government forces and armed fighters loyal to Yemen's most powerful tribal leader, who turned against the president.
Both sides announced Wednesday that those battles claimed far more lives than initially reported.
The battles killed 118 policemen and security men and wounded 1,402, Yemen's state television quoted Interior Minister Gen. Mouthar al-Masri as saying.
The TV report said al-Masri was talking to a delegation from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that is visiting Yemen to investigate possible human rights violations.
The tribal leader, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, also met with the delegation and said 104 of his men were killed and hundreds others were wounded.
Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis demonstrated Wednesday in Sanaa and six other major cities to demand Saleh's ouster.
(This version CORRECTS first name of Aden's acting governor to Abdel-Karim).)