SANAA, Yemen -- Taking advantage of heavy fog, al-Qaida militants set off car bombs and launched coordinated attacks on Yemeni military barracks in three different locations in a southern province on Friday, killing at least 38 troops and wounding dozens of soldiers, a military official said.
The attacks were the largest since a U.S.-backed military offensive last year routed militants from significant swaths of territory they had seized during Yemen's 2011 political turmoil. The assaults also underscored the fragility of the Yemeni military and the failure of the current leadership to meet longtime demands to restructure the military.
For a year now, Yemen has been leading a war against al-Qaida's local branch, also known as the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The branch is considered by Washington as one of the world's most dangerous terror groups and has been behind a series of attacks on the military, as well as assassinations of security officers and government officials in suicide attacks or drive-by shootings.
The simultaneous, 6 a.m. attacks Friday in the southern province of Shabwa, a one-time al-Qaida stronghold, surprised and caught the soldiers unprepared in the early morning hours, said Maj. Mohammed Nasser.
The attacks took place in a remote region, about 500 kilometers (312 miles) southeast of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Nasser said. The militants targeted three military encampments, two of them in the town of al-Mayfaa, and the third miles away, in the al-Ain area.
One suicide car bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into one of the sites in al-Mayfaa after militants overpowered the guards outside the barracks there. Most of the causalities among the troops were in this camp, which serves as a base for soldiers in charge of guarding oil wells in the area. Clashes at the other al-Mayfaa site left at least five troops wounded, Nasser added.
Meanwhile, a car bomb was detonated prematurely outside the gates of the third site, the camp in al-Ain. The explosion there was followed by heavy clashes during which militants seized six soldiers and a number of military vehicles. Eight militants were killed in the fighting at al-Ain, Nasser said.
Friday's attacks came just days after Yemeni authorities warned of more al-Qaida attacks and suicide bombings.
Al-Qaida-linked militants took advantage of the political unrest in Yemen following the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to reinforce their presence in the country's mostly lawless south and step up attacks.
In a major military offensive backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of large parts of the south last year. Al-Qaida militants were forced out but remained scattered in different mountainous areas.
The U.S. has stepped up its drone war in the country, the Arab world's most impoverished country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemen's al-Qaida franchise has also been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots against Americans. Those included a foiled plan to down a U.S.-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber's underwear, and a plot to send mail bombs on planes to the U.S. hidden in the toner cartridges of computer printers.