The death toll from an al-Qaeda assault on a military base in southern Yemen has risen to 185 government soldiers, said military and medical officials on Tuesday. Many soldiers' bodies were found mutilated and some were headless.

The scale of the army's defeat in the Sunday battle, which appears to be the worst-ever suffered by Yemen's military in its 10-month campaign against the al-Qaeda in the southern province of Abyan, deals a major blow to efforts by newly-inaugurated Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to uproot the militant movement from the region.

The surprise attack and the mutilations have left government troops “fearful” and with “low morale,” according to a senior military official who was part of the defeated force. Another 55 soldiers were captured and paraded through a nearby town by the militants, who lost 32 of their fighters in the assault.

Medical officials in the area confirmed the latest death toll and said some of the bodies of soldiers recovered were missing their heads and bore multiple stab wounds. They said that bodies packed the military hospital morgue to which they were taken, with some taken to vegetable freezers in a military compound for lack of space.

A senior military official said the attack left his soldiers “fearful of al-Qaeda because of the barbarism and brutality of their attack”.

“Al-Qaeda managed to deal a blow to the army's morale. Imagine how soldiers feel when they see the bodies of their comrades dumped in the desert,” he said.

Military officials had earlier said that militants overran the base and captured armoured vehicles and artillery pieces, which they turned on the army.

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