CAIRO - With U.S. troops reportedly guiding air raids from a nearby base for the first time, Yemeni jets attacked positions of al-Qaida insurgents Tuesday in southern Yemen's Abyan province.
Yemeni officials said a "four-pronged assault" on the militants was being waged on the ground, backed by heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, and that U.S. troops stationed at al-Annad air base in Lahj province were providing logistical support.
The reported participation of U.S. forces in directing Yemeni fighter jets would represent a major escalation in U.S. involvement.
The U.S. Defense Department acknowledged having trainers in Yemen, but a Pentagon spokesman said he would not go into detail about whether these operations were specifically stationed in Lahj province.
In all, the raids and ground fighting reportedly killed more than 40 people, including al-Qaida militants and civilians.
According to Yemeni state television, government forces have been battling al-Qaida militants by "air, land and sea" in the towns of Lauder, Zinjibar and Jaar, which fell to rebels last year. The government has been trying to dislodge the al-Qaida stronghold which calls itself an "Islamic Emirate."
Hakim Almasmari, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post, said at least 34 militants were killed in Tuesday's incidents, along with eight civilians. He said al-Qaida is not popular with many local residents but controls the region.
"Al-Qaida used the political turmoil in Yemen to expand territory and expand its power," he said. "Today it is a force to reckon with on the ground."
Al-Qaida feeds on chaos in the country and will gain further ground if there is continuing political instability, Almasmari added.
After months of protests, Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, resigned earlier this year and his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was voted into office.
President Hadi has vowed to intensify the battle against al-Qaida militants but faces political uncertainty.
The Obama administration's top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, met with Hadi during a visit to the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, on Sunday.
Yemeni officials said Brennan was briefed on Yemen's ongoing battles against al-Qaida.
The U.S. recently acknowledged that its intelligence arm foiled a plot to blow up an international airliner that was hatched by al-Qaida militants in Yemen. The U.S. has also been reportedly involved in drone strikes against key al-Qaida figures in Yemen.