09/06/2011 08:10 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Yemeni soldiers, militants clash, killing 19

ADEN (Reuters) - Battles between the Yemeni army and Islamist militants killed 19 people in the country's south on Tuesday, as the military struggles to regain control of areas seized by fighters suspected of links to al Qaeda.

Six soldiers and 13 militants were killed in clashes in a western suburb of Zinjibar on Tuesday, a military official said. Three soldiers and an unknown number of militants were wounded, the official said.

The army launched an offensive in the south two months ago after Islamist militants, emboldened by months of mass protests, took over at least three towns in volatile Abyan province, including its seaside capital, Zinjibar.

Since then, violence has raged in Abyan, with militants attacking soldiers and security officials almost daily and the army sending troops and war planes to strike back.

The official said militants had been pushed back into Zinjibar on Tuesday from the al-Kowd area, leaving behind caches of weapons and the bodies of dead comrades.

Some 90,000 Yemenis have fled the bloodshed in Abyan while President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovers in neighboring Saudi Arabia from an assassination attempt.

He is clinging onto power despite international pressure on him to quit and months of protests against his 33-year rule, which have paralyzed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.

The army says it is making gains against militants, but it has yet to regain control over much of its lost territory in Abyan, including the three cities captured.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear the turmoil will give al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch more room to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Opponents of Saleh accuse him of exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda and even encouraging militancy to scare Washington and Riyadh into backing him.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles)