ADEN - Yemen said its army killed 21 al-Qaida members on Saturday in a southern province whose main city was seized by Islamist terrorists during the country's bloody political crisis.

Nine Yemeni soldiers were killed in the fighting in Abyan province, whose capital Zinjibar fell to Islamist fighters last month, sparking fighting that has set nearly all its population to flight.

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Oil giant Saudi Arabia and Western countries fear the chaos resulting from such clashes could give al-Qaida a foothold in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, which straddles oil export routes and has been a cornerstone of US counter-terrorism strategy.

In a statement sent via text message, the defense ministry said its troops had killed 18 "terrorists" in Zinjibar and three in Lawdar, a second provincial city. The army destroyed a weapons and ammunition cache in Zinjibar, it said.

State television said fighting continued across the province, and residents of an area near Zinjibar said government forces carried out air strikes on the city.

Even before protests erupted nearly six months ago demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen was gripped by conflict with separatists in the south and periodic fighting with Shi'ite rebels in the north.

Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for surgery eight days ago after an attack which US officials say left him seriously burned. His foes vow he will never return to power and demand he sign over all authority to his deputy, now the acting president.

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