SANAA (Reuters) - At least eight Yemeni soldiers and five militants were killed when Islamist gunmen attacked an army checkpoint in the central Maarib province on Tuesday, a local official said.
In the southern city of Lawdar, where 57 people were killed on Monday in clashes between government forces and fighters from al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), fighting was intensifying, residents said.
Two tribesmen fighting alongside government forces and six militants were killed, residents and security officials said.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who took over in February after a year of mass protests against his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, is under pressure from Washington to fight his country’s al Qaeda branch.
On Tuesday, gunmen in vehicles fired on the army checkpoint in Abar, some 300 km (186 miles) east of the capital Sanaa, killing eight soldiers and wounding four before fleeing, a local official said. Five of the militants were also killed.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blamed al Qaeda-linked militants for the attack, but it was not clear if they were part of Ansar al-Sharia.
The group claimed on Monday it had captured a large cache of arms and ammunition, including four tanks and anti-aircraft guns during fighting with Yemeni troops in Lawdar.
Residents said fighting intensified on Tuesday with warplanes bombing two sites held by the Islamist fighters 10 km (6.2 miles) west of Lawdar, destroying at least one of the tanks the group had seized a day earlier.
According to a Defence Ministry website, some of the militants killed on Monday were foreigners, including some from Saudi Arabia.
Vehicles laden with fighters and arms left the southern city of Jaar, which militants took a year ago, for Lawdar, witnesses said, while a local official in Lawdar said more tribesmen from neighbouring towns have joined the fight against the Islamists.
The Islamist group seized control of a significant amount of territory in the southern province of Abyan during the turmoil that led to the replacement of Saleh by his deputy. That included a rift in the army that threatened to spark civil war.
Saudi Arabia and the United States backed the power transfer in hopes it would help prevent a slide into chaos that could provide al Qaeda a foothold near key oil shipping routes.
Conflict with Islamists in the south is only one of several challenges facing Hadi, who took office vowing to fight al Qaeda only to have more than 100 soldiers killed in attacks during his first few days in power.
Yemen’s main airport in Sanaa was paralysed for a day after officers and tribesmen loyal to Saleh forced it to close in protest at the sacking of the air force commander, a half-brother of Saleh. A government official said they backed down only after pressure from the United States and Gulf countries, which had crafted the deal that made Hadi president.
Washington, which has pursued a campaign of assassination by drones and missiles against alleged al Qaeda targets in Yemen, is also pressing Hadi to unify the military, which split between Saleh’s foes and allies last year.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Joseph Logan and Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Karolina Tagaris