An al Qaida attack on a Yemeni army post in the south set off clashes that left 44 people dead and prompted local civilians to take up arms alongside the military to beat back the militants, army officials and residents said.
The dawn attack demonstrates how al Qaida's branch in Yemen has exploited the political and security turmoil following the country's yearlong uprising, managing to take control of large swathes of land in the south and staging increasingly bold attacks on the military.
The officials said the militants attacked an army position in the town of Lawder in Abyan province, where al Qaida fighters are active. The town is some 155 miles south-east of the capital of Sanaa.
Residents and military officials said 24 militants were killed in the clashes. Additionally, 14 soldiers, including a colonel, were killed battling the militants, officials said.
Jihad Hafeez, a member of a local anti-al Qaida group in Lawder, said six of his men were killed and eight wounded as they tried to push the militants out of their city. The group is comprised of civilians, mainly from anti-al Qaida tribes, who oppose the group. Mr Hafeez said locals have set up check points in and around Lawder to keep the militants out.
Al Qaida was once present in Lawder, but in July residents drove them out. A few months later al Qaida was blamed for planting a roadside bomb that killed two civilians there, and, as Monday's attack demonstrates, they continue to try to regain their foothold.
For the militants, Lawder is a strategic city. It lies along a major highway that links Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar, an al Qaida stronghold, to the provinces of Hadramawt, Bayda and Shabwa where the group is active.
A member of one of the committees, Abdullah Amer, said fighting raged for hours before the militants were forced to retreat.
The army officials said a nearby army brigade sent reinforcements to back up the soldiers during the fire fight. The officials said three militants were also killed in government shelling of the town of Jaar, near Zinjibar, which is still under the militants control.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the movement's most dangerous offshoots.