By Mohammed Mokhashaf and Mohamed Sudam
ADEN/SANAA (Reuters) – At least 26 Yemeni government soldiers and 17 militants linked to al Qaeda were killed on Wednesday in heavy fighting for control of a stadium near the southern city of Zinjibar, officials said.
The military setback, following reports that 300 of his soldiers had defected to the opposition, was another blow to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as recovers in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in an attack on his palace in early June.
Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a neighbor of the worldâ€™s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, has been shaken by months of protests against Salehâ€™s three-decade rule, a resurgent wing of al Qaeda and a separatist rebellion in the south.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear that al Qaeda may use the chaos to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Yemeni officials said the militants seized control of the stadium from government forces, who have been using the facility — built recently to host a regional football tournament — to support troops fighting to dislodge the militants from Zinjibar.
An official said losing the stadium, located near a military base from which government forces had been launching attacks on Zinjibar, exposed a military base that had been used to launch attacks on the militants in Zinjibar. A counter offensive to retake the position was in progress, he said.
â€œThe militant control of the field will leave the back of the camp from the east exposed,â€ the official said.
Yemeni officials had been reporting successes against the estimated 300 militants who seized control of Zinjibar in May in the midst of a groundswell of popular protests against the nearly 33-year autocratic rule of Saleh.
His opponents say his forces handed over the city to the militants to bolster his argument that his departure would lead to an Islamist takeover of the Arabian Peninsula state.
Yemeni air force planes had killed at least 10 gunmen in attacks on Zinjibar earlier on Wednesday, a local Yemeni official said. One strike mistakenly hit a bus traveling from Zinjibar to Aden, the official added, killing five passengers and wounding 12 other people.
Earlier in the day, opposition officials reported that more than 300 members of Yemeni security forces, including 150 from the Republican Guards led by Salehâ€™s son Ahmed, had defected to rebels.
â€œFrom the podium of the Square of Change in Sanaa, an announcement has been issued that 150 soldiers from the Republican Guards, 130 Central Security soldiers and 60 policemen have joined the revolt,â€ an opposition message said.
No government officials were immediately available to comment on the report.
If confirmed, the mutinies would be a serious reverse for Saleh, who has spent the past three weeks receiving medical treatment in Riyadh for wounds suffered in the June 3 attack.
The defections are the latest in a series by security forces since the anti-Saleh uprising began in February. Most prominent was the defection in March of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen, who has since sent in his troops to guard protesters in Sanaa.
The protests have culminated in battles between Saleh loyalists and gunmen from the powerful Hashed tribal federation in Sanaa that brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Months of unrest have cost Yemen $4 billion, a senior Yemeni official said on Wednesday, adding the Arab state was in talks with potential donors to help plug a gap of $1.5 billion in government commitments for projects funded by Sanaa.
â€œWe are talking with the IMF, the World Bank and donor countries, whether Gulf Arab states or others. There may be some discussions next week with the IMF,â€ Abdulla al-Shater, deputy planning and international cooperation minister, told reporters on the sidelines of a financial conference in Saudi Arabia.
Yemen has been largely quiet with a ceasefire in place since Saleh was injured in the attack, which investigators say was caused by explosives planted in the palace mosque where he and several senior government officials were praying
Saleh, 69, who has not been seen in public since the attack, has resisted pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to hand over power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, under a Gulf nationsâ€™ initiative to end the crisis.
Hadi has been running the country in Salehâ€™s absence, but the opposition wants the president to officially hand over power to him to pave the way for new elections.
Officials have said the president will soon make his first public appearance since the attack with a recorded message to be broadcast on Yemeni state television.
In further violence, a bomb killed a colonel when it exploded in his car on Tuesday night in the port city of Aden, a security source said on Wednesday.
The source said that Colonel Khaled al-Yafiâ€™i was the commander of a military outpost guarding the Aden Free Zone business parkâ€™s entrance.
The outpost was targeted by a car bomb on Friday that killed four soldiers and a civilian and injured 16 other people.
No one has claimed responsibility for the colonelâ€™s killing, but Islamist militants affiliated with al Qaeda are active in southern Yemen.