The Yemeni army seized the al-Qaeda strongholds of Jaar and Zinjibar on Tuesday, officials said, more than a year after the jihadists captured most of Abyan province.

In the first major victories of a month-long offensive, troops backed by armoured vehicles entered the town of Jaar after al-Qaeda gunmen withdrew during the night.

Hours later, they took control of the provincial capital Zinjibar, officials and witnesses said.

Al-Qaeda militants had overrun most of the southern province early last year, taking advantage of the weakening of the central government by Arab Spring-inspired protests in the major cities.

“With the cooperation of the citizens of Abyan... the heroes of the armed forces and the popular resistance committees have taken full control of the city of Jaar,” said the Defence Ministry, quoting southern military commander Salem Ali Qoton.

“Al-Qaeda has suffered heavy losses... and dozens of militants have fled,” said Qoton, adding that thse army had reopened the main road linking Abyan with the southern port city of Aden.

The army then took control of Zinjibar, 12 km to the southeast, another senior officer said. “Zinjibar in total has fallen,” said General Mohammed al-Somali.

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