Four Islamists linked to al Qaeda and a government soldier have been killed in clashes in southern Yemen, security sources said on Sunday, hours after the breakdown of a short-lived ceasefire designed to pacify the area ahead of a presidential election.
The clashes between militants from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) and government forces broke out late on Saturday on the outskirts of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, which militants seized last May.
The capture of the coastal city has increased the vulnerability of Yemen's second city, Aden, security experts say. The United States and Saudi Arabia are particularly concerned that emboldened militants linked to al Qaeda could threaten nearby oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Zinjibar has been nearly destroyed in regular clashes between the government and Islamist militants in the past eight months. Tens of thousands fled and are now refugees in nearby Aden and Lahej.
Tribesmen and residents said government mediators on Saturday forged a ceasefire with militants in an effort to create a peaceful environment for voting on Feb. 21, but militants denied they had made any such agreement.
"They (the government) wanted to hold negotiations with Ansar al-Sharia, but (we) refused," a representative of the Islamist group told Reuters.
Diplomats hope the elections, agreed as part of a deal to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office, will pull the country back from the brink of civil war. Over the last year, militants have exploited lawlessness that accompanied protests against Saleh's 33-year rule to seize towns like Zinjibar and Radda in Yemen's mountainous interior.
Authorities had opted for negotiations in Zinjibar after it became clear that the military option was "not viable", a government official in Sanaa told Reuters, especially given that the army had been weakened by divisions between supporters of the uprising and Saleh loyalists.
"Because of the split in the army and the political crisis, the military solution did not succeed in Abyan... Tribal negotiations may help get the al Qaeda members out of Abyan as they did in the city of Radda," he said.
Militants quit Radda, around 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sanaa, in exchange for the release of jailed comrades and the formation of a council to govern the town.
But such a solution would be difficult to replicate in Abyan province where militants are firmly entrenched.
Highlighting the fragile security situation just weeks before voting, militants on Saturday attacked a Yemeni army base in the south, and elsewhere in Abyan unknown gunmen opened fire on a group of tribesmen, killing one and wounding two. Some tribes have joined forces with the army against the militants .