By JAMAL AL-JASHINI
Yemeni troops killed seven al-Qaida-linked militants _ including an Iranian, a Pakistani and two Somali nationals _ in the latest fighting in a turbulent southern province, a security official said Wednesday.
The official said the seven were killed when the army shelled the headquarters of the local government and the offices of the internal security agency in Zinjibar, provincial capital of Abyan. Zinjibar has been held by the militants since May.
Security has collapsed across much of Yemen as a result of a nine-month anti-regime uprising, allowing militants to take advantage of the turmoil to expand their reach beyond Yemen's remote hinterlands.
Critics accuse President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's leader of 33 years, of turning a blind eye to the growing strength of the militants to support his argument that al-Qaida would take control of the impoverished Arab nation if he were leave office.
The security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said the latest violence in Zinjibar began late Tuesday and continued through Wednesday.
The fighting is part of the army's campaign to regain control of Zinjibar and other areas in the south that have fallen into the hands of the militants since March. The fighting there has forced at least 100,000 residents to flee Abyan province and find refuge in the nearby port city of Aden.
The United States has supported Yemen's military in the south and carried out its own strikes against al-Qaida leaders there, most notably the Sep. 30 killing of al-Qaida's U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The United States views the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch of the terror network is known, as one of its most dangerous arms, blaming it for a string of attempted attacks on U.S. soil and elsewhere.
In Sanaa, Yemen's capital, tens of thousands marched on Wednesday from Change Square, a downtown area where the anti-Saleh movement began, through various neighborhoods, including one that houses the presidential compound. Witnesses said loyalist troops fired in the air to disperse the crowd. No injuries were reported.
At least 500 protesters have been killed and thousands more wounded since the uprising began in February.
A U.S.-backed proposal by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies provides for Saleh to hand over power to his deputy and step down in exchange for immunity, but the Yemeni president has balked at signing the deal.