May 6, 2014 / 12:12 PM / 3 years ago

Yemen army enters militant stronghold in south: defense ministry

Military vehicles drive on a mountainous road on the frontline of fighting against al Qaeda militants in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa May 5, 2014, in this photo provided by Yemen's defence ministry.Yemen's Defence Ministry/Handout via Reuters

ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces waging an offensive against al Qaeda pushed into a militant stronghold in the south after insurgents blew up a government building there with some then withdrawing, the Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.

Since 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's main Yemen base has been in the mountainous al-Mahfad area of Abyan province where militants had fled after the army, with U.S. help, drove them from towns they seized during a chaotic national uprising in 2011.

Major powers are keen on Yemen curbing Islamist insurgents and restoring order in the south to prevent threats to No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the risk of Yemen being used as a springboard for attacks on Western targets.

The Defense Ministry's website quoted an official military source as saying soldiers and allied tribal militias known as popular committees had crossed into al-Mahfad.

"The source said al Qaeda elements blew up the government building in al-Mahfad," the defense ministry cited the source as saying, and some militants had fled the area afterwards.

The Yemeni army is waging a concerted offensive against insurgents in some of the most impenetrable regions of the Arabian Peninsula state.

The offensive follows a series of air strikes, including by U.S. drones, against insurgent bastions that killed some 65 fighters. Last week a Yemeni official and tribal source confirmed the killing of the head of the AQAP cell in al-Mahfad.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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