SANAA, Yemen ( AP) — Military officials say the death toll in fighting between army troops and al-Qaida militants in south Yemen has risen to 139.

The officials said Sunday’s fighting in Abyan province killed 107 soldiers and 32 militants. Scores were wounded on both sides. The latest death toll was confirmed by medical officials in the area.

The military officials said the militants’ surprise attack on army bases outside Abyan’s provincial capital Zinjibar also led to the capture of 55 soldiers. The captives were paraded on the streets of Jaar, a nearby town that like Zinjibar has been under al-Qaida’s control for about a year.

The officials spoke today on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

The battle in Abyan province shows how militants have taken advantage of the political turmoil created by the year-long uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh who last month handed over power to a successor.

The scale of Sunday’s attack points to the combat readiness of the militants as they launch more and more attacks in a region that the United States considers a key battleground in the war on al- Qaida.

Militants seized control of Zinjbar in May and Jaar the previous month as security officials were focused on putting down a rebellion against longtime leader, Saleh.

The officials said the militants attacked the army bases outside Zinjibar from behind, taking the troops by complete surprise.

Saleh stepped down last month in a U.S.-backed power transfer deal that Washington hoped would allow Yemen’s new leaders to move against al- Qaida. But the fighting highlights the difficulties faced by his successor Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in combatting the militant movement and restoring state authority in the lawless south.

The military officials said the militants were able to seize armored vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets from the stores of an army base they attacked. Some of the heavy weapons were later used against the troops, causing most of the casualties.

A Defense Ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting began when militants detonated “ booby trapped vehicles” at an army base in the region of Koud near Zinjibar. The wording of the statement suggested that the base had been occupied by the militants before army forces regrouped and took it back. The fighting lasted the whole day, only stopping by sunset.



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