ADEN (Reuters) - At least 72 suspected al Qaeda-linked fighters were killed in Yemen on Wednesday, officials and tribal sources said, as the government sought to seize the momentum in its efforts to contain an Islamist insurgency.
Militant group Ansar al-Sharia said however only two of its fighters had been killed in Wednesday's clashes.
Still reeling from a year of political upheaval that eventually unseated former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen is grappling with militants who have been exploiting weakened central government control to spread their influence, particularly in the country's south.
Local officials and residents said the army killed 30 militants in fighting on Jebel Yasuf, a mountain around 10 km (6 miles) from the southern town of Lawdar.
Dozens of people have been killed in the Lawdar area since Monday, according to officials, after Ansar al-Sharia fighters attacked an army camp there.
Tribal sources later said a further 27 militants, including a local commander called Ahmed Dararish, had been killed by tribal fighters near the southern entrance to Lawdar. Three tribesmen also died in the clashes.
An air strike on the town of Umm Ayn, around 10 km from Lawdar, killed another 5 militants, a local official said.
In an emailed statement whose authenticity could not immediately be verified, Ansar al-Sharia denied that, saying the air raid, which it blamed on a Saudi war plane, had struck a warehouse belonging to a civilian.
And separately, residents said another 10 militants were killed when an unidentified plane bombed a car in Am Ain just outside Lawdar.
A senior government official said the fighting around Lawdar marked a turning point in its fight against Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) following a series of defeats.
"The battle of Lawdar is considered a decisive one for the army against the terrorist groups and a prelude to the cleansing of all towns seized by militants in the province of Abyan," said the official. He said 10 militants had also been captured. Ansar al-Sharia said none of its fighters had been taken prisoner.
The Defence Ministry said in a text message it had destroyed a number of checkpoints set up by militants on a main road linking Lawdar to the neighbouring province of al-Bayda, re-opening the route.
It also cited unnamed military sources as saying that Saudi Arabian, Pakistani and Somali nationals were among the militants killed in the Lawdar area.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles and Nour Merza; Editing by Maria Golovnina)