SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Two Yemeni soldiers were killed and four wounded Sunday by a roadside bomb blast in southern Yemen as government forces battled for control of a key city held by al-Qaida-linked militants for nearly four months.
Yemeni government forces, backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, are confronting fighters, some with links to Yemen's al-Qaida branch, in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
The drive by Yemeni security forces into Zinjibar marks their first major advance on the city since May.
The security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to journalists, said the roadside bomb exploded in eastern Zinjibar.
The militant takeover of Zinjibar has forced more than 100,000 residents to flee for safety, many seeking refuge in schools and apartments in the neighboring province of Aden.
Ground battles and airstrikes have failed to dislodge militants from southern Yemen.
For example, the 80,000 residents of the city of Jaar are unable to reach government-run hospitals after it was overrun by militants as early as March. Residents there say that militants control the hospitals, allowing only their own fighters to receive treatment.
The militant takeover of parts of the southern Yemen came as the government was focused on nationwide protests calling for the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, who is still recuperating in Saudi Arabia after a June 3 attack on his compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, said the United States and Saudi Arabia have supported the effort to retake the southern towns from militants, and he thanked them.
The U.S. has joined regional powers in calling for Saleh's resignation, despite his government's battle against Islamist militants.
The United States views al-Qaida's branch in Yemen as one of the most dangerous, holding its members responsible for a failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit in December 2009.
A Yemeni security official at the Defense Ministry said the United States has used drones and warplanes in attacks on Zinjibar and Jaar. He said the U.S. also helped Yemen with reconnaissance flights over areas of Abyan province and provided information on fighters and their movements.
The U.S. has also given Saleh's government millions in aid to battle militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Saleh has warned the West that if he heeds protesters' calls to step down, al-Qaida would take control of the country.
Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former Saleh aide who commands a unit of the army that has thrown its support behind protesters, charged Sunday that Saleh allowed the militant takeover to deflect pressure away from himself.
He said Saleh allowed security forces and the army to withdraw from southern Yemen earlier this year "and hand over government facilities to armed terrorists."
A day earlier, opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said Saleh allowed the militants easy access to police headquarters where vehicles, ammunition and weapons were seized in June.
The government has not responded to the accusations.
The Defense Ministry said that a total of 230 soldiers and over 300 fighters have been killed this year in southern Yemen. An unknown number of civilians have also been killed in government-sanctioned airstrikes.