ADEN - Al-Qaeda fighters seized a strategic town from pro-government forces in southern Yemen on Wednesday after clashes that left at least seven people dead, security officials said.
The terrorists took control of Jaar in southern Abyan province, which is a key link between main southern city Aden and Mukalla, the Qaeda-held capital of southeastern Hadramawt province, a military source told AFP.
Iran-backed rebels have been battling pro-government forces in Yemen for months, and the loyalists in July launched operations to retake five southern provinces, including Abyan and Aden, from the insurgents.
But Islamist militants, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, appear to have gained ground in and around Aden, where jihadists are now visibly present.
The battle for Jaar killed four pro-government "Popular Resistance" fighters, including a commander, security officials said.
Three Al-Qaeda fighters were killed as clashes continued on the outskirts of Jaar, the sources said.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in October occupied government offices in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
It has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in Mukalla, which it seized in April.
And last month, radical Islamist gunmen entered a faculty at Aden university, forcing students to leave the campus, and locked down the faculty's main gate, according to witnesses.
They said the gunmen closed the faculty after they had threatened to use force against students if they did not observe segregation of the sexes on campus.
AQAP militants, already active in the south and southeast, have exploited the unrest in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been pounding rebels since March.
The rebels last year seized the capital Sanaa, and their expansion into central and southern areas forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia before later returning to Aden.
The United States considers AQAP to be the most dangerous affiliate of the Al-Qaeda terror network.
It seized Zinjibar and other parts of Abyan in 2011, where members remained before being defeated by local army-backed militias a year later.