ADEN (Reuters) - Militants linked to al Qaeda beat a retreat in southern Yemen on Thursday as warplanes attacked from the sky and ground troops advanced on insurgent-held towns, killing at least six Islamist fighters, residents and local officials said.
The attacks, which showed the government is beginning to push the militants back, were part of a U.S.-backed Yemeni army offensive against Islamist fighters who have exploited political instability to seize swathes of land in the southern Abyan province.
Witnesses said residents of the town of Lawdar, a flashpoint for fierce fighting in recent weeks, were celebrating in the streets after Islamist fighters fled the area in the direction of Shaqra, a coastal town in Abyan they still control.
A Yemeni air strike on a checkpoint in Shaqra later killed three Islamist fighters and two civilians, residents and local officials said. A second attack on a vehicle carrying militants fleeing Lawdar was also hit, killing an unknown number of people.
The advance was the latest sign that government troops are on the move - on Wednesday soldiers backed by tribal fighters captured a strategic mountain that controls access to the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar, the Abyan provincial capital, which are also held by militants.
A military official said the town of Jaar, which the militants have renamed "the emirate of Waqar", was surrounded by the army on all sides.
Alarmed by the militants' activity in Yemen, the United States has increasingly used drones to target them.
Earlier on Thursday, a security official said that a suspected U.S. drone had targeted a convoy of Islamist militants in an overnight strike in eastern Yemen, killing three.
The official said the rocket had hit the convoy in the Shibam area of the eastern Hadramout province and that a vehicle believed to be laden with explosives was hit.
Residents of the area told Reuters the vehicle's three passengers were members of a militant cell. The accounts could not be independently verified.
Violence escalated after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in February following the departure of his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh. Militants launched a series of deadly attacks in which scores of Yemeni troops were killed.
U.S. drone attacks, which have often killed civilians and are deeply resented by Yemenis, remain controversial however, with some critics warning the strikes risk discrediting Hadi as a lackey of Washington and turning the wider population against him.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Osborn)