A Yemeni army tank is seen as Yemeni soldiers with the support of local tribes fight against militant supporters of al Qaeda in town of Loder, Yemen, April 25, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)
(AP) SANAA, Yemen - Yemeni warplanes and troops backed by heavy artillery waged a four-front assault on al Qaeda militants Tuesday, trying to uproot their hold in the south in an offensive Yemeni officials said was for the first time being directly guided by American troops at a nearby airbase.
The central U.S. role in the operation would be a significant stepping up of American-Yemeni cooperation against al Qaeda's branch here, which is accused of a string of attempted attacks against the United States.
The offensive appeared to mark an increased determination to break the hold of al Qaeda in the south, where militants have controlled several towns for nearly a year, including the provincial capital of Zinjibar.
Fierce battles continued overnight and early morning Tuesday inside Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
Yemen's ill-equipped and poorly trained military has stumbled repeatedly in trying to fight al Qaeda ever since the militants seized territory during the political turmoil surrounding last year's uprising that led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But since Saleh's resignation in February, his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has vowed to make the fight against al Qaeda a top priority.
The effort is supported by the U.S., which considers al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen the network's most active. On Sunday, the White House's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, met with Hadi in the capital Sanaa.
Hadi's office later said the Yemeni leader briefed Brennan on the army's progress in the south, which Defense Mohammed Nasser Ahmed described as the "final decisive battle against al Qaeda."
Several Yemeni military officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday that unlike previous, failed offensives against al Qaeda, this time the United States was providing direct logistical support to the Yemeni military.
The officials said an airbase called al-Annad in the southern province of Lahj is serving as a command center where nearly 60 U.S. troops are helping advise the Yemenis. They also said the Americans were providing information and logistical support to Yemeni troops.
The Yemeni military officials, who are familiar with the workings of the army in the south, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive cooperation. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa could not be reached for comment.
On Sunday, al Qaeda fighters attempted an attack from the northern gate of al-Annad airbase, close to the troops' living quarters, but were repelled. One Yemeni officer was killed in the attack, the officials said, and the Yemeni military later deployed heavy troops to protect the airbase.
The Pentagon said a week ago that it had sent military trainers back to Yemen for "routine" counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces.
"We have begun to reintroduce small numbers of trainers into Yemen," a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, told reporters.
Another American official said the arriving troops are special operations forces, who work under more secretive arrangements than conventional U.S. troops and whose expertise includes training indigenous forces. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject publicly.
The U.S. military training program in Yemen was suspended last year amid the revolt against Saleh. Under the former president, Washington had greatly expanded counterterrorism aid, at one point having between 100 and 150 trainers there.
The U.S. also has a substantial naval presence near Yemen. A Marine contingent aboard U.S. Navy ships arrived in the area over the weekend on a routine rotation. It includes the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, with about 2,000 Marines aboard vessels including the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima. Also in the group is the USS New York, an amphibious transport dock ship that was built with more than seven tons of steel from the World Trade Center. It is the New York's maiden deployment.
Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was behind the failed Christmas 2009 attempt to bomb an American airliner as well as a foiled attempt the following year to mail package bombs to the U.S. Last week, The Associated Press disclosed that the CIA thwarted a new plot to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner, this time using a bomb with a more sophisticated design.
The new offensive against al Qaeda in the south was taking place on at least four fronts, the Yemeni military officials said. The target is to regain Zinjibar, which authorities believe will deal a heavy blow to the militants and diminish al Qaeda's hold in the south.
By Tuesday, Yemeni troops had pushed into the center of Zinjibar and military helicopters were flying over the city for the first time in an indication that al Qaeda militants have lost its heavy weaponry capable of shooting down the helicopters, one military official said.
The troops "can for the first time catch a glimpse of the torched government buildings" that al Qaeda's fighters had hunkered down in during the battles that turned the downtown into a ghost city after thousands of residents fled, the official said. He added that six militants were captured in Zinjibar, but provided no other details on casualties on either side.