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By Mohammed Mukhashaf
Tue May 29, 2012 3:16pm EDT
ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni troops have captured rebel-held positions on the outskirts of the southern city of Jaar, a military official said on Tuesday, pushing ahead with a U.S.-backed offensive to remove Islamist militants from the country.
He said at least 10 militants had been killed in the fighting since Monday night and the Yemeni army was within 2-3 km (1-2 miles) of Jaar.
"Seizing this area will help us gain control of Jaar city," he told Reuters. "Our goal is to advance into the city."
Al Qaeda-linked militants seized large swathes of territory in southern Yemen last year as then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh grappled with protesters demanding his overthrow. Saleh quit last November in favor of his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour.
The United States and its Gulf Arab allies have watched with mounting alarm as security deteriorates in Yemen, home to al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula wing (AQAP), which Washington views as a serious threat.
Washington has stepped up air strikes using drones against people in Yemen it says may be plotting attacks against it. It has also renewed military training to help Yemeni security forces grow strong enough to reassert control over the country.
The military official said troops advanced at least one km towards Jaar in the past 24 hours. "The troops are continuing to shell the northern and central parts of the city".
Jaar residents said food supplies were running short and many were unable to flee the city because of heavy shelling.
"The house next to ours was destroyed by shells and we're worried the same will happen to us," a Jaar resident said, without giving his name.
A group of religious scholars met Hadi on Tuesday, urging him to stop confronting militants in the south, to reject any kind of foreign intervention in Yemen, referring to the United States' increasing involvement, and to implement sharia, Islamic law, properly.
The governor of Abyan, Jamal al-Aqel, said the military was in full control of several southern towns that militants had tried to seize in the past, including Lawdar and Mudiyah, but that heavy fighting was still under way inside Zinjibar.
Four soldiers were wounded on Tuesday when Islamist militants ambushed government troops outside Zinjibar, a military official said. Months of fighting and shelling in and around the strategically important city have left it a ghost town, residents said.
"Most of the city is empty, the buildings are destroyed and most of the basic services like electricity are cut off," one resident told Reuters by telephone.
Saudi Arabia has advised its citizens to stay away from Yemen, the official SPA news agency said on Tuesday. Last month, the deputy consul at the Saudi consulate in the southern port city of Aden was kidnapped by al Qaeda militants, apparently wanting to exchange him for women prisoners and a ransom.
(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Tim Pearce)
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