SANAA, Yemen — An al-Qaida attack on a Yemeni army post in the south set off clashes that left 64 people dead on Monday and prompted local civilians to take up arms alongside the military to beat back the militants, said army officials and residents.
The dawn attack is the latest in a series of bloody battles in recent months that mark an escalation in al-Qaida's efforts to expand its control around a swath of land it seized last year. The group took advantage of the country's political turmoil to overrun cities and towns in southern Yemen.
The militant movement appears to be on the offensive, assaulting and sometimes overrunning army positions, although it also suffers reverses.
The officials said this latest assault fell on an outpost in the town of Lawder in Abyan province, some 155 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of the capital of Sanaa.
Residents and military officials said 40 militants were killed in the clashes. Additionally, 18 soldiers, including a colonel, were killed battling the militants, officials said. Six civilians allied with the army were also reported killed.
Yemen's military in the south, poorly equipped and low on morale after a series of defeats, has not been able to fight the group and its supporters alone. In cities like Lawder, residents have become fed up with the government's inability to protect them and, in a country where tribes posses weapons, have taken up arms to protect themselves.
The military said it used artillery to pound al-Qaida from a distance, but local civilians appear to have done much of the close-in fighting.
A leader of Lawder's civilian committee, Mohammed Aydroos, said he was wounded with a bullet to the shoulder, but vowed to continue the battle.
"The goal of al-Qaida is to take over of our city, but our goal is keep them out," Aydroos said. "We burnt three of their cars and killed many of their fighters."
Jihad Hafeez, a member of a local anti-al-Qaida group in Lawder, said six of his men were killed trying to push al-Qaida out of the city. The group is comprised of members of tribes who oppose the militants.
Hafeez said locals were able to push al-Qaida fighters out of the city by the afternoon after hours of fighting, and set up checkpoints around it to keep them out.
Military officials however said fighting was ongoing in different areas just outside Lawder by nightfall.
Al-Qaida was once present in Lawder, but in July residents drove them out. A few months later al-Qaida was blamed for planting a roadside bomb that killed two civilians there, and, as Monday's attack demonstrates, they continue to try to regain their foothold.
For the militants, Lawder is a strategic city. It lies along a major highway that links Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar, an al-Qaida stronghold, to the provinces of Hadramawt, Bayda and Shabwa where the group is active.
The area is now a patchwork of government- and militant-controlled towns.
Al-Qaida transported the bodies of 40 fighters killed in the battle for Lawder to the city of Jaar, where the group is in control. They immediately buried their dead, according to residents there.
They transported their wounded in eight pickup trucks to the province of Shabwa just north of Abyan where they were treated in the main hospital in the city of Azzan, according to hospital officials there. That city is also under al-Qaida control.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military rules, said three other militants were also killed in government shelling of Jaar on Monday.
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 revolts elsewhere, forced longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February. His successor and former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was later rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote. He was the sole candidate as part of a power transfer deal backed by both the U.S. and Gulf Arab states.
Washington hopes that Hadi can firm up the government's authority and make good on his pledges to fight al-Qaida. But in addition to his war with the militants he also faces a challenge from Saleh loyalists.
Hadi on Friday fired key commanders and relatives of Saleh including the ex-president's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar. The shake-up sparked a showdown with Saleh's supporters who Saturday tried to take over the capital's airport, even rolling tanks onto the tarmac and shooting up an airport surveillance tower.
The air force commander initially defied the order to step down and holed himself up in his office before abruptly leaving Sunday as the airport was reopened.