* Militant raid is the second on military outposts in two days
* Officials blame al Qaeda for the attacks
By Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari
ADEN/SANAA, April 1 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is successfully exploiting splits within Yemen's armed forces, Defence Minister Mohammad Naser Ahmed warned on Sunday as suspected Islamist militants killed seven soldiers in the second such attack in two days.
The Yemeni military split last year during protests against the 33-year rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with some forces remaining loyal and others joining the opposition.
Briefing parliament on raids that have killed nearly 200 soldiers since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office in February, Ahmed said that jostling for power and logistical difficulties were helping the militants.
"The army is divided," he said. "Two legitimacies are in a struggle and we are caught between them. Each side is trying to prevail against the other and al Qaeda is exploiting all of this."
Officials have blamed the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militant group that controls large swathes of territory in southern Yemen, for the recent attacks.
On Sunday the Defence Ministry's September 26 news portal said that "seven soldiers were martyred in a treacherous terrorist attack on their outpost" near the city of Shibam, in the southern Hadramout province.
Ahmed said that roads were cut and Yemen's sole military transport plane had been sabotaged on an air base recently, making it difficult to send arms to soldiers fighting al Qaeda.
But he said his ministry had devised a plan to overcome the army's divisions, which he said he hoped to implement within two weeks. He gave no details of the plan but said he would tender his resignation if it was not implemented.
The United States and oil giant Saudi Arabia engineered the transfer of power from Saleh to Hadi, whose main task is to restore stability so that the militants have fewer opportunities to exploit the central government's weakness.
ATTACK UNDER DARKNESS
As in previous attacks, the militants struck before dawn on Sunday under the cover of darkness.
Almotamar, an online website run by Saleh's General People's Congress party, quoted security sources as saying that the militants arrived at the Jojeh checkpoint in one vehicle and quickly killed the seven soldiers.
"The attack bears the fingerprints of al Qaeda," it quoted a security source as saying, without giving further details.
The attack appeared to mirror Saturday's, in which militants raided a military checkpoint in the southern Abyan province, killing at least 20 soldiers, according to a senior military official.
Yemen's interior ministry put the death toll at 13 soldiers, while Ansar al-Sharia, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said about 30 soldiers had died and that it had seized military hardware.
A local official in Abyan said on Sunday that a Yemeni warplane had destroyed a tank captured by the militants on Saturday and killed an unknown number of gunmen.
The Yemeni army has also surrounded the area around the checkpoint, the official added. Dozens of people have fled nearby villages, fearing artillery or other exchanges of fire in any further fighting.
Ansar al-Sharia has stepped up its attacks since Hadi's inauguration, when he vowed to fight the militants. Hours after he was sworn in, a suicide attack at a military base killed 26 people.
In their deadliest attack yet, militants killed at least 110 soldiers and took dozens hostage on March 4 in the Abyan provincial capital, Zinjibar.
The government has responded with air strikes on suspected Islamist hideouts, and the United States has repeatedly used its drones to attack militants, who have seized several southern towns over the past year.