Yemeni forces backed by air power from the Saudi-led Arab coalition launched an operation on Saturday to drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of a southern provincial capital, military officials said.
Forces loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in Abyan province advanced towards Zinjibar and the neighbouring town of Jaar, the sources said.
Soldiers clashed with militants at Al-Kud, five kilometres (three miles) south of Zinjibar, while coalition Apache helicopters targeted extremist positions in the area, the officials said.
Twelve Al-Qaeda militants and three soldiers were killed, a military official said.
Later Saturday, troops reached the government complex on the southern edges of Zinjibar and fighting raged around the compound, military sources said.
Residents said heavily armed and masked fighters were seen deploying in the city\’s streets.
Government forces last week expelled militants of the jihadist network\’s local branch — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — from Huta, the provincial capital of Lahj, as part of a widespread operation to secure southern provinces.
Coalition-backed forces have driven militants out of Aden, the southern city declared by Hadi as the country\’s temporary capital after Shiite Huthi rebels stormed Sanaa in September 2014.
The Arab coalition began a military operation backing Hadi in March last year after rebels advanced on his refuge in Aden and forced him to flee to Riyadh.
But pro-Hadi forces managed over the summer to wrest back control of Aden and four other provinces with the support of coalition firepower.
Coalition forces have also turned its attention to jihadists, backing pro-government forces against AQAP and Islamic State group militants who have taken advantage of the chaos to strengthen their grip on southern Yemen.
The latest fighting comes as representatives of the government and the Iran-backed rebels continue with UN-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait, which began on Thursday.
The negotiations are under pressure to firm up a fragile ceasefire in Yemen that went into effect on April 11.