SANAA, Yemen -- Airstrikes killed 36 suspected al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen on Wednesday, military and medical officials said, as the government pressed on with a campaign to drive out fighters who have overrun several towns.
Islamic militants – some suspected of links to Yemen's al-Qaida branch – seized the towns starting in late May, taking advantage of the political turmoil unleashed by protests against Yemen's longtime ruler. Nearly three months of attacks by warplanes and ground forces have failed to dislodge them.
The U.S. fears that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula will gain a freer hand in Yemen to train and plot attacks against the West as Yemen's embattled government focuses on putting down the protest movement that began calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster in February. Saleh had been cooperating with the U.S. in battling the al-Qaida offshoot.
A first round of airstrikes early Wednesday killed 30 militants near Zinjibar, one of the towns outside the government's control, the officials said. Another airstrike later killed six militants in the nearby Arkoub area, where a pair of suicide bombings had killed 11 anti-al-Qaida tribesmen on Sunday.
Eight Yemeni soldiers were also killed in ground fighting near Zinjibar, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Meanwhile, a funeral procession was held for a senior lawmaker who died Monday in a Saudi hospital from wounds he suffered in a June 3 attack on Yemen's presidential palace compound. The attack killed 11 of the president's bodyguards and seriously wounded President Saleh and four other senior officials.
Saleh is still recovering in Saudi Arabia, where he was treated for serious burns and other injuries.
About 3,000 mourners attended Wednesday's funeral for Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Ghani, speaker of the Shura Council, parliament's upper house.
Yemeni protesters, enraged by grinding poverty and government corruption, took to the streets in February as unrest swept the Arab world and demanded that Saleh step down after 33 years of ruling over the impoverished and unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
A government crackdown has killed at least 174 people, according to Human Rights Watch.