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By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohammed Mukhashaf
SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni forces said on Tuesday they killed 10 al Qaeda fighters who attacked their camp outside the southern town of Zinjibar, the scene of fierce clashes between government troops and militants.
Islamists have seized several areas in the surrounding province of Abyan in recent months -- raising fears in the West and neighbouring Saudi Arabia that al Qaeda's Yemen wing is expanding, taking advantage of a security vacuum left by prolonged anti-government protests.
Yemen has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The country was left in political limbo when Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following a bomb attack on his palace last month.
Yemen's army launched an offensive last week to push back militants in Abyan, on Yemen's southern coast, but has so far only regained one military site.
An army spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the al Qaeda fighters attacked one of its camps on Monday night.
"The 10 militants were killed by heavy shells before they could make it to the military camp," he said, adding that one of those killed was a senior member of the militant group.
An army general told Yemeni television late on Monday the army's offensive in Abyan was facing fierce resistance.
"Our forces are engaged in difficult clashes with al Qaeda in Zinjibar," said Mohammed al-Somali. "The fighting is large and violent, on a larger scale than most would probably imagine."
About 90,000 people have fled the violence in Abyan, most of them heading to the nearby port city of Aden, which lies east of a strategic shipping strait that channels about 3 million barrels of oil a day.
Security analysts have cast doubt on Yemen's reports that its forces have killed dozens of al Qaeda militants and several senior leaders, noting that many of those fighting in Abyan are likely members of other militant groups.
"It wouldn't surprise me if there were puritanical militants who want to see closer adherence to what the consider to be Islamic values but didn't necessarily share the trans national agenda of AQAP (al Qaeda's Yemen wing)," said security analyst Jeremy Binnie, of IHS Jane's.
Saleh's opponents accuse him of letting his forces ease their grip around areas suspected of hosting militants, in order to convince foreign governments that only he stands in the way of a militant takeover.
Both the United States and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda's Yemen branch, are wary of growing turmoil in Yemen, which they fear gives room to the militant group to operate.
Washington and Riyadh hoped to bring more stability to Yemen by pushing Saleh into signing a Gulf-brokered transition plan, but the 69-year-old leader has backed out of inking the deal three times.
He has instead vowed to return to Yemen and start a national dialogue, angering protesters in the streets who are still insisting on his resignation.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Erika Solomon and Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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