SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's army engaged on Thursday in heavy gun battles with Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda on the edge of the southern town of Jaar, part of a month-long offensive to retake several towns seized by rebels, local officials said.
At least 20 Islamist fighters from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), an offshoot of al Qaeda, were killed, residents said. Five tribesmen fighting alongside government forces also died, the residents said.
The Yemeni army is trying to recapture towns in the southern province of Abyan that were seized by the militants last year during a popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who formally stepped down in February.
Residents said military helicopters took part in Thursday's battles, bombing several rebel-held positions.
The United States has become increasingly alarmed at the situation in Yemen which it views as being in the front line of its war on anti-American Islamist militants.
In support of the army campaign, the United States has stepped up drone strikes against suspected militants.
Concerned about the humanitarian and security crisis in Yemen, Gulf Arab states and the West pledged more than $4 billion in aid to the impoverished state last month.
About 40 percent of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day. Aid agencies said in May almost half of them lack enough to eat.
Editing by Robert Woodward