Story highlights

Clashes began after a government security sweep

The fighting lasted for nine hours

Fourteen militants and 7 government troops were killed

Sanaa, Yemen CNN —  

Fierce clashes between government troops and al Qaeda fighters Sunday morning in Yemen left 21 people dead, two local security officials told CNN.

The officials said clashes erupted when hundreds of troops attempted to sweep through areas around the district of Jaar, the main stronghold for al Qaeda in the southern province of Abyan.

Al Qaeda fighters fought back, kicking off clashes that continued for nine hours, the officials said. Fourteen militants and seven troops were killed in the fighting, they said.

Residents of Jaar told CNN that al Qaeda fighters were seen entering from neighboring districts Sunday after the government warned of a raid.

The residents said Yemen’s air force attacked targets being used by al Qaeda as weapon storage sites.

“A deadline was given to al Qaeda in Jaar to surrender,” a senior security official in Abyan told CNN on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to media.

The security official said that more than 90 al Qaeda militants were killed over the past week in Abyan.

The sudden apparent government success in its fight against al Qaeda is largely due to the hundreds of local resistance fighters who joined the lines of the government last month.

Those resistance fighters successfully forced al Qaeda militants out of the strategic Lowder district late last week.

Celebrations and parades were seen in the streets of Lowder on Saturday after government forces controlled the district for the first time since last year.

“Our lands are free again and the ghost of al Qaeda is weaker then we thought. They ran away degraded from Lowder and we will follow them until they leave the entire province,” said Nasser Abdul Moqhni, a local resistance fighter.

Last year, Ansaar al-Sharia, an offshoot of al Qaeda, took over the majority of districts in Abyan province, benefiting from the political turmoil in the country. Numerous military bases were evacuated making it easier for the militants groups to grow in power and territory.