The recapture of the coastal town of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, and Jaar, on a main road to the oil-exporting port of Aden, "have broken the strength of Al Qaeda," said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.
The battles left at least 20 militants and four Yemeni government troops dead, the operation's commander, Maj. Gen. Salem Ali Qaten, was quoted as telling the state-run Saba news agency.
The campaign that drove about 500 militants from the key southern regions was reportedly aided by a U.S. military command center recently established in the southern desert of the Arabian Peninsula to combat what U.S. national security officials consider the most dangerous remnant of the Al Qaeda network.
Fighters with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and another offshoot, Ansar al Sharia, last year seized control of much of the strategic territory on the southwest tip of the peninsula that is the gateway to the Red Sea for oil shipments through the Suez Canal.
The militants gained ground during a chaotic uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was replaced in February by Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in a negotiated resolution of the power struggle inspired by the Arab Spring. Since then, U.S. forces have been assisting Hadi's troops in the effort to clear the southern regions of militants suspected of plotting attacks on the shipping lanes and terrorist strikes on U.S. targets.
After seizing the two towns, Yemeni troops dispatched mine-clearing engineers and were pursuing militants who fled to Shaqra, another coastal stronghold in Abyan province, Albasha said.
"Despite the battles won by the military, Al Qaeda continues to be a major threat to the security and stability of Yemen," Albasha said.
Saba quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry official as saying air strikes had hit 10 boatloads of fleeing Al Qaeda fighters and destroyed several vehicles inland.
Ansar al Sharia emailed a statement in which it said it retreated from the towns to "spare bloodshed" and vowed to return to defeat "crusaders and American agents," the Associated Press reported from the Yemen capital, Sana.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Yemeni soldiers occupy a position near Zinjibar in this photo from May 31 provided by the Yemeni Defense Ministry on Tuesday, when the government reported recapturing the coastal town along the oil-exporting region's shipping lanes. Credit: Yemeni Defense Ministry / European Pressphoto Agency