AL-MUKALLA: At least three Yemeni soldiers were killed and six more wounded, including a field military leader, when Al-Qaeda militants detonated improvised explosive devices and launched attacks in Yemen’s southern province of Abyan on Monday, in a bid to halt Yemeni military advances into the militants’ strongholds.

Two local officials told Arab News that the soldiers were killed immediately after their vehicles came into contact with IEDs planted by Al-Qaeda in Moudia, as they pushed deeper into remote areas of the district.

“Al-Qaeda militants cannot halt the advance of southern troops. However, they merely laid mines and quickly attacked them before fleeing,” an official, who requested anonymity, said.

The Yemeni troops, mainly commanded by the Southern Transitional Council, have succeeded in clearing pockets of Al-Qaeda approximately 35 km east of Moudia, and are still pushing into the more remote areas of Abyan.

Residents reported hearing large explosions and seeing thick smoke billowing from mountainous areas east of Moudia on Monday, as advancing forces exchanged fire with Al-Qaeda militants.

The military activities in Abyan are part of a offensive by local security forces that began on Saturday and has the objective of driving Al-Qaeda militants from their long-held hiding places in Abyan and Shabwa, where militants stage deadly attacks on government-controlled areas.

Over the past three days, the military has gained control of a large swathe of land in Abyan, including three valleys that each house Al-Qaeda training facilities. Security forces also entered Khaber Al-Marakesha, an area of arid and mountainous terrain that is the home of Al-Qaeda militants, including Jalal Baliedi, a senior Al-Qaeda leader who was killed by a US drone in the same area in 2016.

In Shabwa, Yemeni forces also pushed the militants out of Al-Musainah and are now chasing pockets of Al-Qaeda in the area’s mountains.

The current operations in Abyan and Shabwa will cease once both provinces have been cleared of Al-Qaeda militants, local military commanders said.

Analysts, however, argue that because of Al-Qaeda’s knowledge of the challenging topography of Abyan, Shabwa, and Al-Bayda, local military forces may not be able to achieve more gains in the three provinces’ mountains.

Yahiya Abu Hatem, a military analyst, told Arab News that Al-Qaeda has long been sheltered in Abyan’s remote and mountainous areas which lack populations and state institutions.

“The terrorist organizations thrive in dead and difficult terrain where they are able to easily set up military facilities and take refuge in caves and valleys,” Abu Hatem explained.

“In those areas, state services have been absent for a long time.”

Al-Qaeda is also flourishing in the areas between Abyan and Shabwa and close to the Houthi-held Al-Bayda, Abu Hatem noted, due to the unusual relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Houthis, who encourage the militants to carry out attacks in the liberated areas in exchange for protection and weapons.

“Those liberated areas, mainly in the southern provinces, would not be safe without liberating Al-Bayda from the Houthis, forming one command room, activating intelligence,” Abu Hatem said.