Al-Qaeda militants kidnapped 14 Yemeni soldiers returning home by bus from duty in eastern Yemen on Friday and executed them in what officials said was an apparent act of revenge for a recent army crackdown in the area.
The Yemeni army has recently sent extra troops to the Wadi Hadramout region in northeastern Yemen to confront attempts by Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Ansar al Sharia, to declare an Islamic emirate in the main regional city of Seiyoun.
Residents and officials said people in the area found the bodies of the 14 riddled with bullets on a road near Seiyoun, three hours after they were abducted from a public bus.
Ansar al-Sharia, in an internet posting late on Friday, confirmed its militants had ambushed and killed the soldiers for taking part in military operations against the group.
"The mujahideen ordered the soldiers down from the bus, interrogated them, and checked their military IDs and that they belonged to contingents based in Seiyoun," the group said in a news report posted online.
"The mujahideen then led the soldiers to the city market, delivered a speech clarifying that the captive soldiers had participated in the latest campaign against Sunni Muslims in Wadi Hadramout, and thus the mujahideen decided to kill them as a punishment for their crimes," it added.
The group also posted pictures of the soldiers in civilian clothes surrounded by the militants concealing their faces with traditional head dresses as they checked the ID cards. One photo showed the soldiers sitting on the floor surrounded by the militants, also in plain clothes.
Residents said the soldiers, who had been travelling to visit families in Sanaa, some 600 km (373 miles) away, were all shot several times with automatic rifles.
"It looks as if it was an act of revenge," an official in the area said.
Stability of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab World, is an international concern. The country of 25 million people shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, which militants tried to breach last month in an attack that killed six militants and four Saudi border guards.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), emboldened by a power vacuum in the political turmoil following a 2011 uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is trying to carve out areas of dominance in south and east Yemen.
The Yemeni army, backed by the United States, has repeatedly launched campaigns against militants trying to set roots in cities or towns in south and eastern Yemen they had captured over the past three years, only to be driven out.
The militants have increasingly resorted to hit-and-run attacks targeting soldiers, army camps and government facilities across the vast area.
Friday's attack follows recent gains by the army against the militants, who have been trying to consolidate their control over the volatile Wadi Hadramout area of eastern Yemen.
Yemeni security have killed at least 25 suspected militants in a series of confrontations in the Wadi Hadramout area in the past week, including seven killed on Thursday when they tried to attack an army facility.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has recently ordered extra troops to the area after the militants distributed leaflets suggesting they wanted to declare an Islamic emirate in Seiyoun and ordered women not to go out without a male guardian.
In the incident on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said the militants' target was the headquarters of the first military district, whose jurisdiction covers the Wadi Hadramout area.
A small number of militants also briefly took over several government buildings, including the police headquarters and an intelligence office, in the nearby town of al Qatan early on Thursday, residents said.
Nine suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in Hadramout on Wednesday when they tried to ambush troops heading to eastern Yemen.
The United States regards AQAP as one of the most active wings of the militant network founded by Osama bin Laden. Washington has stepped up its support for the Yemeni government and military, with drone strikes at the heart of its strategy.