SANAA, Yemen — Sneaking across the desert behind army lines, Al-Qaeda militants launched a surprise attack against military bases in south Yemen, killing 107 soldiers and capturing heavy weapons they later used to kill more troops, officials said on Monday.
The military officials said at least 32 of the militants were killed in Sunday's fighting in Abyan province and scores were wounded from both sides. Medical officials in the area confirmed the death toll figures. They said the poor services in local hospitals accounted for the death of many soldiers who suffered serious wounds but could have survived had they been given better medical care.
The high death toll among the troops is believed to be the highest on record in battles fought by the army against Al-Qaeda militants, who have been emboldened by the political turmoil roiling the impoverished Arab nation for more than a year.
The militants' attack appeared to be Al-Qaeda's response to a pledge by Yemen's newly inaugurated President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to fight the Yemeni branch of the terror network.
The military officials said the militants' surprise attack outside Abyan's provincial capital Zinjibar also led to the capture of 55 soldiers. The captives were paraded on the streets of Jaar, a nearby town that, like Zinjibar, has been under Al-Qaeda's control for about a year.
The officials spoke on Monday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The scale of Sunday's attack points to the combat readiness of the militants as they launch more and more attacks in a region that the United States considers a key battleground in the war on Al-Qaeda.
Militants seized control of Zinjbar in May and Jaar the previous month as security officials were focused on putting down a rebellion against longtime leader, Saleh.
The officials said the militants attacked the army bases outside Zinjibar from behind, taking the troops by complete surprise.
Saleh stepped down last month in a US-backed power transfer deal that Washington hoped would allow Yemen's new leaders to move against Al-Qaeda. But the fighting highlights the difficulties faced by his successor Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in combating the militant movement and restoring state authority in the lawless south.
The military officials said the militants were able to seize armored vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets from the stores of an army base they attacked. Some of the heavy weapons were later used against the troops, causing most of the casualties.
A Defense Ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting began when militants detonated "booby trapped vehicles" at an army base in the region of Koud near Zinjibar. The wording of the statement suggested that the base had been occupied by the militants before army forces regrouped and took it back. The fighting lasted the whole day, only stopping by sunset.
Hadi meanwhile said in televised comments that fighting Al-Qaeda and restoring security in the impoverished Arab nation were among his top priorities. He spoke during a meeting with leaders of Yemen's political parties.
Saleh during his more than 30 years in power tolerated radical Islamic groups as part of a delicate balancing act that kept at bay threats to his authority in the fractured nation.
There has been a surge in attacks blamed on Al-Qaeda after Hadi's inauguration.
Sunday's fighting followed the dismissal last week by Hadi's government of the military commander of the southern region, to which Abyan belongs, along with other security officials from the province.