(MENAFN - Jordan Times) At least 22 Islamist militants were killed in overnight clashes and an air strike in southern Yemen, where government troops are fighting rebels linked to Al Qaeda, a local official and residents said on Sunday.
Around 15 of the dead were killed in fighting north of the militant stronghold of Jaar, a town in Abyan province that has been controlled by the militants since last year, Reuters reported.
Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Al Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) exploited last year's popular protests against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to capture swathes of territory in Abyan, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
Yemen's Al Qaeda wing (AQAP) has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the capital Sanaa that killed more than 100 soldiers last week.
This month the government began a counter-offensive against Ansar Al Sharia with US help.
A military official said the army had managed to recapture key positions in Zinjibar, where at least 63 militants were killed on Saturday in heavy fighting, many of them Somalis, Reuters reported.
The bodies of seven militants were seen on Sunday being carried away from a factory located west of Jaar, which is used by Ansar Al Sharia as a base, after it was attacked by a Yemeni warplane on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Yemen has identified the suicide bomber behind last week's deadly attack on troops that killed nearly 100 soldiers, according to a statement posted online.
A picture of Haitham Hamid Hussein Moufarrah dressed in traditional Yemeni garb was posted on a jihadist website late Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported.
A statement by AQAP also described the May 21 bombing in Sanaa as a "commendable operation that was overseen by the emirs and the military command of the network".
A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Moufarrah was "a soldier who infiltrated Yemen's central security forces, a unit of the army where he served," adding that the bomber's father was arrested Saturday "for questioning".
Another police official said the bomber "was part of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell in Sanaa which acted to reduce pressure on the network in the southern province of Abyan", where the army is battling militants for control of the restive territory.
He said Yemen's "army and security units have been infiltrated by some 300 Al Qaeda operatives", AFP reported.
On May 21, the suicide bomber, packing powerful explosives under his uniform, blew himself up in the middle of dozens of troops rehearsing for an army parade to mark the 22nd anniversary of the unification of north and south Yemen, killing 96 soldiers and wounding at least 300 others.
Also on Sunday, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the US can deal with Al Qaeda's spreading presence in Yemen without US forces on the ground, relying instead on targeted operations, AFP reported.
Panetta, in an interview with ABC television's "This Week", defended the use of drones as "the most precise weapon we have" in the campaign against Al Qaeda.
"Our whole effort there is aimed at going after those terrorists who threaten to attack our country," he said.
"We've been successful. We've gone after a number of key targets there. We'll continue to do that."
Panetta was asked whether Al Qaeda could be stopped without US boots on the ground.
"The answer is yes, because very frankly, what we're targeting, the operations we're conducting, require the kind of capabilities that don't necessarily involve boots on the ground, but require the kind of capabilities that target those that we're after who are threats to the United States."