NEW: 184 soldiers were killed in the Sunday attack, Yemeni officials say
NEW: A Yemeni government spokesman in Washington gives a much lower death toll
42 militants have been killed in air raids, according to Yemeni officials
The militants were with Ansar al-Sharia, which is allied with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
The death toll from a sophisticated attack by Islamic extremists against soldiers in Yemen jumped to 184 Tuesday, three Yemeni officials told CNN.
Air raids on militant positions since the attack have left at least 42 militants dead in Abyan province, security officials said.
The attack Sunday at an army base by Ansar al-Sharia, which is allied with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, originally claimed the lives of 90 soldiers and wounded many others.
A spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington issued a statement giving a much lower death toll, saying “73 martyrs” died in the “battles in Abyan.” But officials on the ground in Abyan gave CNN the higher death toll.
The attack “illustrates AQAP’s complete disregard for human life,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
She vowed that the United States will continue to support Yemen’s new President Abdurabu Hadi “and the Yemeni people as they work to realize their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future.”
The attack was a humiliating defeat to Yemen’s army in a power struggle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The militants seized large amounts of weaponry – including rocket launchers, mortars, armored vehicles and tanks – and appeared to have had help from within the security apparatus, according to Yemeni officials.
The bloodbath took place near Zinjibar, a town on the Arabian Sea where Ansar al-Sharia has been active for nearly a year.
One Yemeni official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said militants began attacking an army base from the east, drawing the fire of troops, and then began attacking from the other side of the base. The “reinforcement response was too slow,” he said, adding that was partly because of sandstorms in the area.
“Troops were basically slaughtered by the militants. The attacks happened so suddenly; and this time they were more organized than we expected,” one senior security official said.
On Monday, more attacks took place.
Al Qaeda-linked militants occupied a Republican Guard garrison in the province of Baitha before the Yemeni army overtook it, a Yemeni government official said.
A police chief in Aden’s 6th precinct survived an assassination attempt, but his bodyguard was killed, the government official said. It was unclear who was behind the attack, but al Qaeda-linked militants have stepped up assassinations.
“Political bickering” is under way about what to do in the province of Abyan, where the attack occurred, as politicians play a blame game over why such violence has been on the rise, the official said.
Meanwhile, U.S. trainers are helping the Yemeni government in its effort to retake al-Kowd, the town in Abyan closest to the military base where Sunday’s attack occurred, two Yemeni security officials said.
U.S. officials had no immediate confirmation.
Air attacks went on through the night Monday and into Tuesday morning in an effort to kill militants and destroy their tanks and other vehicles, the officials said.
Hundreds of troops were deployed to Abyan, and nearly 1,000 more will reach the province by Tuesday night, the Interior Ministry said.
“This will take time, but the government will not be lenient when dealing with terrorist groups,” said Ali Obaid, a spokesman for the military committee. Militants were weakened by government raids on their hideouts in Ansar al-Sharia, he said.
At least 146 troops have been wounded since Saturday, security officials said.
Experts warn that al Qaeda is planning to conduct powerful attacks in six Yemeni provinces.
Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of the Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Center, said pamphlets belonging to al Qaeda were distributed to residents informing them of the attacks to come.
“This is just the beginning, and al Qaeda attacks will spread quickly in March. Security authorities must be on high alert or risk seeing another bloodbath like the one in Abyan,” Mohammed said.
“Sanaa, Baitha, Hadramout, Aden and Shabwa provinces are all on the al Qaeda hit list.”
CNN’s Hakim Almasmari, Mohammed Jamjoom and Josh Levs contributed to this report.