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5 Islamists, 2 soldiers die in Yemen fighting

Jan. 3, 2012 4:32 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 4, 2012 5:16 P.M.)
ADEN (Reuters) -- Five Islamist fighters and two Yemeni soldiers were killed on Tuesday, a local official said, in fighting between government forces and an Islamist group that has controlled the capital of a southern province since May.

The official said the army shelled fighters from a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia and exchanged gunfire with them in Zinjibar, in Abyan province. A colonel and another soldier were killed and three other soldiers wounded, he said.

Yemen's central government says the group is linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted abortive attacks on other countries from bases in Yemen.

Opponents of Ali Abdullah Saleh -- who has agreed to step down as president after nearly a year of protests pushed the country to the brink of civil war -- accuse him of ceding territory to Islamists to bolster his assertion that his rule keeps al-Qaida in check.

Nonetheless, the fighting illustrates the chaos that neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia and Washington fear may envelop Yemen and embolden its al-Qaida wing.

Months of fighting have forced out much of the population of the province and deepened a humanitarian crisis in an impoverished country with numerous local conflicts.
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