had already left.
Brigadier general Ahmed al-Maqdashi, head of Shabwa security, said the militants fled Friday into the mountains, where the army was chasing after them.
The military, backed by tanks and heavy artillery, laid siege to al-Hawta in the Shabwa province on Monday to retake the town, which was earlier seized by the militants. Between 8.000 and 10.000 residents fled Hawta and the surrounding area after the fighting broke out. Abdullah Atig, a local Shabwa official, said Friday that preparations were under way to bring the people back to their homes. A committee was formed to help them.
Officials have praised the offensive,but Shabwa elder, Hassan Banan, claimed the government had exaggerated the intensity of the fighting to get more foreign aid for its campaign against al-Qaida.
On Wednesday, government forces launched multiple assaults on Hawta but failed to break the militants' defenses. In one attempt helicopters were used. In another attempt, several soldiers were wounded by sniper fire as they tried to mount barricades put up by the militants on Hawta's outskirts.
Shabwa governor Ali al-Ahmadi had said that at least four al-Qaida fighters died. General Al-Maqdashi, the area security chief, said on Wednesday that 28 militants had been arrested.