Clashes between army, militants in Yemen kill 21
ADEN (Reuters) - At least 12 militants and nine soldiers were killed in three clashes on Sunday in southern Yemen, where Islamists and separatists have launched several attacks during the country's bloody political crisis.
Twelve militants and two soldiers were killed outside Zinjibar -- the capital of the flashpoint southern province of Abyan, a military official said.
A local official later told Reuters that five soldiers were killed in a separate attack by militants near Zinjibar.
In the southern province of Lahej, a local official said two soldiers were killed in a shootout.
Thousands of people have fled the clashes between the army and militants believed to be close to al Qaeda in the southern province of Abyan, after its capital Zinjibar fell to militants last month.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's opponents have accused him of handing over Zinjibar to Islamists to reinforce his threat that the end of his three-decade rule, as demanded by protesters, would amount to ceding the region to al Qaeda.
In Lahej, where both separatists and Islamist forces have as much or more sway than the central government, gunmen have launched bold attacks in recent weeks.
Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and Western countries fear protracted chaos could give al Qaeda a foothold in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
Yemen straddles oil export routes and has been a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
Saleh's supporters say he will return in days from Saudi Arabia where he is being treated after being wounded two weeks ago in an attack at his presidential palace.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Editing by Jan Harvey)
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