ADEN/SANAA, Yemen, March 4 (Xinhua) -- The Yemen-based al-Qaida wing said it captured 70 government soldiers after it overrun an artillery battalion during fighting with government troops early Sunday in the southern flashpoint province of Abyan, according to a statement obtained by Xinhua.
The statement came an hour after government officials said the battle against al-Qaida in Abyan left about 50 soldiers killed and dozens of others injured.
"We captured 70 soldier after we raided the government elite artillery battalion in Dovas, which was responsible for shelling Zinjibar and Jaar over the past months," the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said in the statement.
"The Mujahideen (holy warriors) also launched a string of attacks, including bombing an explosive-laden vehicle and explosive devices, against several targets of the government military units in al-Koud and Dovas towns, killing more than 50 government soldiers, while we lost two of our fighters and 13 others were injured," it said.
"During the battles today (Sunday), we seized from the enemy ( government troops) a large-scale of different heavy weapons, including a tank, anti-aircraft cannons, Katyusha-propelled vehicles, two ambulance cars and three military pick-up vehicles" it said, adding that they destroyed two tanks, three Katyusha- propelled vehicles and a large quantity of heavy weapons.
Earlier in the day, Yemeni officials said the death toll of the army from their battle with al-Qaida militants in Abyan on Sunday rose up to 50, while dozens others were wounded.
An official of the Interior Ministry told Xinhua on Sunday night that "the death toll among the soldiers has increased to 62. "
The battles erupted Sunday morning after twin suicide bombing attacks targeted two military bases of the Yemeni army forces in the outskirts of Abyan's provincial capital city of Zinjibar and in nearby coastal town of Dovas, off the Gulf of Aden.
The ongoing fighting came less than 24 hours after the resurgent al-Qaida wing launched deadly attacks against the government elite Republican Guards in the southeast province of al- Bayda and the Central Security camp in the southern province of Hadramout.
Local observers said the AQAP increased attacks against the army since newly-elected President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was sworn in last week after the Feb. 21 presidential election. Several hours after Hadi was sworn in at the parliament, a suicide bombing attack against the presidential palace in Hadramout killed at least 30 Republican Guards.
Hadi was elected as new president in accordance to a UN-backed power transfer deal agreed by the opposition and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, following a year of protests against Saleh's 33-year ruler.
However, the resurgent AQAP, known locally as Ansar al-Sharia ( Partisans of Islamic Law), seems to have taken advantage of the one-year-long anti-government protests against Saleh through expanding control over several lawless cities across the country's southern provinces.
Last week, the Yemeni government gave AQAP militants a seven- day ultimatum to quit the captured cities in Abyan.
"Al-Qaida is launching crazy separated attacks against government troops in several southern regions, aiming to disturb the government planned massive offensive against Zinjibar and Jaar towns," said a Yemeni intelligence official, describing al-Qaida's move as a "preemptive action."
"The AQAP's attacks reveal that the group is sending a message that it has the ability to launch several battles in many separated regions at the same time against the government troops... so this is a message telling the government troops to stop deployment near Zinjibar," he said, adding that "it seems that al- Qaida is afraid of the government planned attacks on Zinjibar and Jaar."
An army soldier told Xinhua anonymously that "up to 40 soldiers went missing after the battle (on Sunday)... we lost communications with them."
Yemen's military sent tanks and other reinforcement from the neighboring port city of Aden to Abyan, trying to regain the army post seized by al-Qaida operatives, witnesses told Xinhua.
Meanwhile, an army officer involved in the battles said that hours after many soldiers were taken captive by the terrorists, warplanes bombed al-Qaida militants, who quickly fled the army post.
"Army troops managed to regain control of the outpost," he told Xinhua on condition of anonymity, adding that "al-Qaida militants retreated from the whole region for fear of intensified air raids. "
The Defence Ministry said in a statement on its website that additional force from the Republican Guard and Special Forces took part in the battle against al-Qaida militants on Sunday, confirming that its troops regain control over the militants-held army barracks.
A local medic at the Bashuib military hospital in Aden told Xinhua that "more than 36 army soldiers who were wounded in the fighting with al-Qaida were brought back for treatment this afternoon."
The U.S.-backed Yemeni government forces have been battling AQAP militants in the south, leaving hundreds of people killed and thousands displaced.
Hadi has vowed to strengthen security and intelligence cooperation with the United States in combating AQAP, which has threatened the daily oil shipping routes in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.