June 21, 2011- (Reuters) - Yemen's army has stepped up an offensive to dislodge Islamist militants holed up in a southern province, killing at least 10 in overnight attacks involving air strikes, a local official said Tuesday.
About 300 militants from ultra-conservative Salafist groups linked to al Qaeda seized Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, in May, amid a wave of popular protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's nearly 33-year rule.
"Between 10 and 15 armed group members were killed in face-to-face confrontations in the town of al-Kud and other areas around Zinjibar," a local official involved in the military operation said.
He said Yemen's air force took part in the attacks.
Monday, a military spokesman said troops had killed 17 militants since an offensive began Sunday. Five soldiers had died and 21 were wounded, the military added.
Abyan's provincial governor, Saleh Hussein al-Zuari, said in comments posted on a government website that security forces were making progress against the militants.
It was not possible to verify his statement. No one was immediately available to comment from the armed Islamist group in the city.
Witnesses in Mudiyah, a town in northern Abyan, said on Tuesday they saw militants burying around 20 corpses.
The seizure of Zinjibar forced thousands of residents to flee and raised fears that militants with ties to al Qaeda were gaining ground as Saleh resisted pressure from his Saudi and U.S. allies to step down in favor of a transition to democracy.
Saleh has been in a Saudi hospital since being wounded in an attack on his palace on June 3, but he retains power.
Saleh's opponents say his forces handed over Zinjibar to the militants in order to bolster his argument that his departure would lead to an Islamist takeover of the poor Arab state.