Sanaa:  Yemeni artillery and military aircraft backing pro-government tribesmen have pounded al-Qaida fighters trying to battle their way into a strategic town in the country's south, while a suspected US airstrike killed at least 12 militants, officials said.

The fighting near the town of Lawder started over the weekend when al-Qaida attacked an Army post, sparking resistance from Yemeni troops and from armed residents.

The military claims that at least 165 militants have been killed in the past three days, including 38 on Wednesday, as al-Qaida continues a costly but determined assault aimed at expanding a swath of the south under their control. The officials said six civilians fighting alongside the Army were also killed.

Another 12 militants were killed when a vehicle stolen by al-Qaida from an Army post in recent days was hit by an airstrike. Residents said the vehicle took a direct hit, leaving it totally destroyed with bodies strewn nearby. They and the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

US officials could not immediately be reached for comment. US drones have targeted al-Qaida leaders in Yemen in the past. The fighting is the latest in a series of bloody confrontations between government forces and al-Qaida-linked militants in southern Yemen, where the militants control a patchwork of towns taken mostly last year in the chaos that surrounded the popular uprising against longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that those killed Wednesday included two senior members of the militant network in the area. It identified them as Imad al-Manshaby and Ahmed Mohammed Taher. Other security officials said the dead also included Saudis, Somalis and a Pakistani.