September 1, 2011
Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Clashes between al Qaeda fighters and government troops since May in southern Yemen have killed 300 militants, the country's Interior Ministry said Thursday.
A total of 183 government troops have died in the fighting, according to security officials in Abyan province, an al Qaeda stronghold.
Yemeni troops also have retaken numerous villages previously in the hands of militants, a government spokesman said.
"The numbers of killed terrorists is a sign that the government is taking the matter seriously and will continue to fight them until the country is cleansed from them," according to spokesman Abdu Ganadi.
In February, Yemen Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said al Qaeda fighters in Yemen only numbered a couple of hundred.
But some questioned the government figures.
"If we take in consideration what the foreign minister said earlier in the year and what the Interior Ministry announced ... there aren't supposed to be any more al Qaeda militants in Yemen," said Ali al-Jaradi, a political analyst and expert in al Qaeda affairs.
"If 300 were killed in Abyan then who is fighting our troops?"
The government defended its numbers, saying they are not exaggerated.
"The ministry is not under pressure to raise the number of those killed as has no reason to give false information on the militants death toll," Mohammed al-Maweri, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said.
Abyan province was taken over by a extremist militant group called Ansar al-Sharia in late May, which has since then been in control of most districts of the southern Yemen province.
The group also announced its desire to takeover Yemen's business capital, Aden, which borders Abyan. If successful, it would create a crescent shaped Islamic emirate.
The group has links to al Qeada, according to the Interior Ministry.
This comes as a local security official in Lahj province said that more than 100 al Qaeda militants have entered the province, coming from neighboring Abyan.
Residents of Lahj fear that the government is planning to evacuate its thousands of troops like it did in Abyan and force the province to fall in the hands of militants.
"Why is the government allowing them to enter Lahj," said Khaldoon Mansoor, who lives in Howtah, the capital of Lahj. "It knows they are coming in the province and yet doing nothing to stop them while they are in small numbers."
More than 90,000 residents of Abyan were evacuated after developments in May and are now living in shelters in neighboring Aden and Lahj provinces.
In January, young protesters took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fears of an all-out civil war have spiked in recent months as government forces and people alleged to be Hashed tribesmen slugged it out in the capital.
Saleh, who has been confronted with widespread anti-government sentiment and militant activity, has been urged to accept a political transition plan that will lead to his departure. He is currently in Saudi Arabia, undergoing treatment for severe burns suffered in a June 3 attack on his palace.