SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Al-Qaida-linked militants staged a surprise attack on a Yemeni army base in the south Saturday, setting off clashes that left 30 dead on both sides before air strikes forced the some of the militants to retreat, military officials said.
The attack demonstrates how al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has exploited the political and security turmoil following the country's yearlong uprising, managing to take control of large swaths of land in the south and staging increasingly bold attacks on the military.
The target of Saturday's attack was a base in al-Mallah town in the southern province of Lahj. The town is close to Abyan province, an al-Qaida stronghold.
Residents of the town of al-Rahha in the southern province of Lahj said that Islamist fighters had surrounded one of the military's brigades. They said the fighting was so fierce that the army was unable to recover its dead.
The residents spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the events.
The army said it fought back Saturday with rockets and called in fighter jets. It said the militants were forced to retreat up nearby mountains, but not before 17 soldiers and 13 militants were dead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The militants overran cities and towns last year, as the government focused its efforts on protecting the regime in the capital during protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh's replacement, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has made fighting al-Qaida one of his top priorities, but many Yemenis accuse the ousted president, whose loyalists are still influential in the military and in government bodies, of undercutting security operations and the new president's authority.
Washington is also involved in fighting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known. The group is believed to have plotted two failed attacks on American soil.
On Friday, unmanned U.S. drones targeted al-Qaida positions inside Shabwa province, where militants are in control of several areas, Yemeni officials said.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry said the airstrike killed three al-Qaida militants and a civilian.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials, but Washington has carried out deadly airstrikes in Yemen in the past. Last year, a U.S. drone strike killed U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and a second American, Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist.