(CNN)Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters seized two major cities in Yemen after hours of clashes, part of the terror group's effort to expand its presence in southern regions of the war-torn country.
Al Qaeda seizes key towns in south Yemen
According to three senior security officials in Abyan, al Qaeda militants on Wednesday took over Zinjbar, the capital of Abyan province, and Jaar after fierce clashes with groups loyal to Yemeni President Abdurabu Hadi amid absence of the armed forces in the province.
Abdulatif Said, the head of pro-government committees, said their forces evacuated during the fierce clashes and that both Jaar and Zinjibar are now in the control of al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda destroyed the headquarters for the popular committees in Jaar and killed at least 4 senior popular committee commanders, the officials told CNN.
Taking advantage of the fragile security situation in regions retaken from the Houthi militants and ongoing conflict in others, the militant group has expanded its presence in some southern provinces including Aden, Shabwa and Lahj.
Armored vehicles, funded by Gulf nations, which entered Yemen over the last five months to stop the Houthi expansion are now controlled by al Qaeda, according to a top Aden security official in the governors office. The vehicles were previously controlled by forces loyal to Hadi.
Government forces with support from a Saudi-led coalition drove the Houthi militants out of the southern regions earlier in the year.
But the authorities have been unable to bring the situation under control even after the coalition has also deployed troops to help restore stability and security.
Militants are roaming key streets and targeted killings are on the rise in Aden, the temporary capital. The majority of Aden is controlled by al Qaeda fighters as they control more territory in the country.
Earlier this year, al Qaeda seized Mukalla, the largest city in the province of Hadramout, taking advantage of the conflict sparked by the Houthi militants' seizure of power.
Moreover, ISIS has lately become active in some cities, including the capital Sanaa where it launched many deadly attacks.
After the unrest erupted in 2011, al Qaeda seized Zinjbar, Jaar and other towns in the south.
In 2012 the army -- with support from U.S. drone attacks -- retook all towns that were under al Qaeda control.