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ADEN (Reuters) - Islamist militants killed at least 10 Yemeni soldiers and seized an army checkpoint in the south of the country on Saturday, a local official said, in an attack claimed by an al Qaeda-linked group.
Local officials said heavy fighting broke out later between the militants and army reinforcements sent from the port city of Aden to retake the checkpoint, located on the road linking the southern provinces of Lahej and Abyan.
Yemeni war planes then bombarded the checkpoint, forcing some of the militants to retreat towards the city of Jaar, taking with them two tanks and other hardware.
The militant group Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) claimed responsibility for the attack. In a text message purporting to come from the group, it said it had killed 30 conscripts.
"The holy warriors of Ansar al-Sharia this morning carried out the raid of dignity on the al-Hurur military checkpoint in Abyan, resulting in the deaths of around 30," read the message, whose authenticity could not immediately be verified.
One witness said he saw the bodies of around 20 soldiers lying on the ground around the checkpoint.
Three Islamist fighters were killed in an air strike on one of the tanks they had seized and four died in the clashes at the checkpoint, local and army officials said.
Residents said the army had begun distributing machineguns among them so they could help beat back the militants.
Emboldened by a year of political upheaval in Yemen, Islamist militants have launched a spate of attacks on the army since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office last month vowing to fight al Qaeda's regional wing.
The Yemeni government has responded with air strikes on suspected Islamist hideouts, and the United States has repeatedly used its drones to attack militants, who have seized several southern towns over the past year.
An officer in the security forces survived an assassination attempt in the city of Mukalla in Hadramout province on Saturday when a bomb planted in his car exploded just after he got out, a security official said.
Wary of al Qaeda's growing strength in Yemen, Washington backed Hadi's election last month under an Arab Gulf-brokered deal to ease his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh from power after a year of demonstrations against him.
That deal has been denounced as a U.S. and Saudi ploy to get rid of Saleh in a sop to protesters calling for his overthrow, whilst keeping his regime in place as a perceived bulwark against al Qaeda.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Tim Pearce)
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