SANAA, Yemen — Sneaking across the desert behind army lines, al-Qaida militants launched a surprise attack against military bases in south Yemen, killing 107 soldiers and capturing heavy weapons they later used to kill more troops, officials said on Monday.
The military officials said at least 32 of the militants were killed in Sunday’s fighting in Abyan province, and scores were wounded on both sides. Medical officials in the area confirmed the death toll figures. They said the poor services in local hospitals accounted for the death of many soldiers who suffered serious wounds but could have survived had they been given better medical care.
The death toll among the troops is believed to be the highest on record in battles fought by the army against al-Qaida militants, who have been emboldened by the political turmoil roiling the impoverished Arab nation for more than a year.
The militants’ attack appeared to be al-Qaida’s response to a pledge by Yemen’s newly inaugurated President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to fight the Yemeni branch of the terror network, believed to be the world’s most active.
Hadi repeated that pledge on Monday during talks with a visiting British diplomat.
“The confrontation will continue until we are rid of the last terrorist, whether in Abyan or elsewhere,” local Yemeni media quoted him as saying.
The military officials said the militants’ surprise attack outside Abyan’s provincial capital Zinjibar also led to the capture of 55 soldiers. The captives were paraded on the streets of Jaar, a nearby town that, like Zinjibar, has been under al-Qaida’s control for about a year.
The officials spoke on Monday on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to reporters. The battle in Abyan province shows how militants have taken advantage of the turmoil created by the yearlong uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who last month handed over power to Hadi.
Late Monday, the Defense Ministry said a soldier was killed and two others wounded when militants launched an attack on a military checkpoint in the southern province of Bayda, where al-Qaida took control in January.
In recent weeks in Bayda, there have been assassination attempts on security officials and a suicide bombing at a base belonging a force run by Saleh’s son.
The scale of Sunday’s attacks also points to the combat readiness of the militants as they launch more attacks in a region that the United States considers a key battleground in the war on al-Qaida.
Militants seized control of Zinjibar in May and Jaar the month before as Yemen security officials were focused on putting down a popular uprising against Saleh’s regime.
Saleh stepped down last month in a U.S.-backed power transfer deal that Washington hoped would allow Yemen’s new leaders to move against al-Qaida. But the fighting highlights the difficulties faced by Hadi in combatting the militant movement and restoring state authority in the lawless south.
Sunday’s fighting followed the dismissal last week by Hadi’s government of the military commander of the southern region, to which Abyan belongs, along with other security officials from the province.
The al-Qaida attack led to demonstrations on Monday by thousands of university students in the coastal city of Aden, Yemen’s second largest after Sanaa. The demonstrators demanded that Maj. Gen. Mahdi Maqoula, commander of an armored battalion deployed outside Zinjibar, be put on trial for suspicion of collaboration with al-Qaida.
The military officials said the militants were able to seize armored vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets from the stores of an army base they attacked. Some of the heavy weapons were later used against the troops, causing most of the casualties. The weapons were captured from Maqoula’s 31st armored battalion, according to the military officials.
A Defense Ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting began when militants detonated “booby trapped vehicles” at an army base in the region of Koud near Zinjibar. The wording of the statement suggested that the base had been occupied by the militants before army forces regrouped and took it back. The fighting lasted the whole day.