SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni government forces regained control of a strategic gateway in the south on Tuesday after intense three-day shelling of al-Qaida hideouts in the area that left 43 militants dead, military and medical officials said.
The military had stepped up attacks and airstrikes against al-Qaida in the mountainous area of al-Rahha in the southern province of Lahj, a strategically important region that links the south with Yemen's northern cities.
The offensive followed two surprise attacks by militants on Yemeni army bases in the area.
The military officials told The Associated Press that the government forces are trying to reclaim key cities in Aden and Abyan provinces in the south, overrun by al-Qaida. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Qaida-linked militants have taken advantage of a year of internal political turmoil and security vacuum in Yemen to expand their gains in the country's south. The militants have seized several towns and cities and entire swaths of land, and the military's campaign has so far not managed to retake those areas.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots.
Yemen's uprising, inspired by Arab Spring revolts elsewhere, forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February. His successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote. Hadi has vowed to fight al-Qaida while restructuring the armed forces, in which Saleh's loyalists and family members still hold key posts.
Midlevel officers and soldiers have been informing al-Qaida militants about military matters in southern provinces, according to military officials, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The officials said they believe al-Qaida has taken advantage of deep poverty in Yemen's south by paying off soldiers in exchange for information about the military's movements. Officials also blame defections on low morale among some army units.
In another southern province, security officials said al-Qaida militants held a number of Yemeni staff hostage sent to repair a damaged gas pipeline on Tuesday. After around four hours, local tribal chiefs brokered their release.
Al-Qaida-linked militants were believed to be behind Friday's attack on the pipeline, which extends runs to an export terminal on the Arabian Sea. The French company Total runs the gas field and pipeline.