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ADEN - Yemen's military on Tuesday ramped up its offensive against Al-Qaeda in the country's restive south, launching ground and air assaults that reportedly killed at least 53 people, including 12 civilians.
The town of Jaar in Abyan province was pounded by air strikes which killed 13 extremists and the 12 civilians, while battles raged in Loder, another Abyan town the jihadists have been wrestling to control, leaving another 12 Al-Qaeda fighters dead, according to witnesses and tribal leaders.
Eight militiamen fighting against Al-Qaeda as well as eight soldiers also died in Loder, militia and military officials said.
Troops on Saturday launched a multi-pronged assault aimed at recapturing Qaeda-held towns and cities across Abyan, including the regional capital Zinjibar.
On Tuesday, the military called in air strikes against targets in Jaar, five days after dropping leaflets warning civilians to stay clear of Al-Qaeda hideouts.
A first strike killed two Al-Qaeda suspects while the 12 civilians, part of a group who had gathered around the residence right after the attack, died in a second raid soon after, witnesses said.
"Eight bodies were pulled out of the rubble," one witness said. Another four among 25 civilians hurt in the second attack died later, said residents.
A later attack by the air force killed another 11 jihadists, a local source and residents said.
"The army has advanced in the area surrounding Jaar and arrested around 25 members of Ansar al-Sharia (Islamic law) on their motorbikes," said a military official.
Members of Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen have renamed themselves Partisans of Sharia.
Meanwhile, 12 other militants were killed in battles that raged northeast in Loder, tribes said.
Loder is the only Abyan town besides Mudia still not under the control of the extremists, who overran Zinjibar in May last year.
A military official said two soldiers were killed in fighting around Loder while "an Al-Qaeda sniper" shot dead an officer from the 111th Brigade, Colonel Qasim Dabwan.
Another military official said five other soldiers had been killed there.
Ali Ahmed, spokesman of the Popular Resistance Committees, formed by residents of Loder and nearby Mudia to battle jihadists alongside the army, said five of its members were killed while nearly a dozen were wounded.
Three of them died later, another member of the committees said.
"We have managed to push the extremists further away from the southern and western entrances of the city," Ahmed told AFP as both sides exchanged artillery fire in what he described as "fierce" battles raging around Loder.
Fighting between the army and residents on one side and the extremists on the other for the control of both towns left more than 200 people dead early in April.
Tuesday's deaths bring to around 90 the number of people killed since the military launched its offensive.
Tribal sources said Monday the battles had seen 37 militants killed in two days, but AFP could not independently verify the toll.
A military official said on condition of anonymity that 12 soldiers have been killed since the operation was launched Saturday. But the defence ministry news website 26sep.net put the toll at six dead.
Attacks on Al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces with US backing have intensified in recent weeks.
Early last week, air strikes by US drones in eastern Yemen killed jihadist network leader Fahd al-Quso, wanted by Washington in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Quso's name figured on an FBI list of most wanted terrorists, along with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
John Brennan, US President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism aide, held talks in Sanaa on Sunday with Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
Their discussions revolved around "combatting terrorism" and attempts by Yemen to crush the local branch of Al-Qaeda, state news agency Saba reported.
Al-Qaeda militants exploited the decline in central government control that accompanied Arab Spring-inspired protests that eventually forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power in February.