Up to 12,000 civilians have fled their homes in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa because of heavy fighting between government forces and suspected al Qaeda militants, according to Yemen's Red Crescent.

Three al Qaeda militants and two soldiers have died in the clashes that erupted Sunday at dawn, a security source said.

Between 8,000 and 12,000 people have left the town of al-Hota and surrounding areas due to the violence, the local branch of the Red Crescent said in a report to the Red Cross in Sanaa, seen by Reuters.

Yemen's defense ministry said in its online newspaper that security forces engaged in fierce clashes in Shabwa with "armed elements" from al Qaeda, among whom were foreigners, including Saudis "who are trying to mingle with the population."

Yemen, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, became a global security concern after the Yemen-based regional arm of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a botched bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner on December 25.

Al Qaeda and the Yemeni government have clashed for many years, but bloody confrontations between militants and security forces are on the rise as the group stages increasingly bold attacks on international and domestic targets.

Since June, al Qaeda militants have carried out a number of attacks on state targets in southern Yemen, including a hit on the headquarters of an intelligence agency in the port city of Aden in which 11 people died.

The government has responded with a widespread crackdown including airstrikes, against the suspected militants.

Those displaced by the recent fighting have fled to nearby towns or provinces, the majority staying with relatives in highly cramped conditions, the Red Crescent said in its report, calling for urgent food and medical supplies.

Shabwa is also the home province and suspected hiding place of radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen wanted by U.S. authorities for his links to al Qaeda.

Separately, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh received a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated U.S. support for a "unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen," the U.S. embassy in Yemen said on its website.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jason Benham; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Top News

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