Female protesters pose with an AK-47 during a rally in Taiz demanding the ouster of Yemen's president.
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SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni soldiers fought Islamic militants Saturday in an attempt to drive them from several southern towns under the control of hundreds of the militants.
The clashes left a total of 40 people dead, officials said.
The army commander leading the campaign to drive out the Islamists is among several top military figures who have turned against Yemen's president and have thrown their support behind the massive protest movement pushing for the ouster of the autocratic leader.
The commanders who abandoned the Yemeni president, now in Saudi Arabia, accuse him of trying to sow chaos and letting the southern towns fall into the hands of Islamic militants in an effort to convince the United States and other Western powers that, without him in charge, al-Qaeda would take control of the country.
Yemen's ambassador in London, Abdulla Ali al-Radhi, told Reuters that Mr. Saleh was in a stable condition Saturday and recovering from injuries from an attack on his palace.
"He's in his wing in the hospital, no longer in intensive care. He's conscious and talking," the ambassador said.
Mr. Saleh underwent surgery in Saudi Arabia after he suffered burns and shrapnel injuries in the attack eight days ago. Medical sources in Saudi Arabia and Yemeni officials said two other officials wounded with Mr. Saleh had been taken for more surgery.
Saturday's fighting around Lawdar and Zinjibar killed 21 al-Qaeda militants, Yemen's defense ministry said. Nineteen soldiers were killed, a local government official said on condition of anonymity.
The surrounding Abyan province is one of the strongholds of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the U.S. government considers a more immediate threat than the terror network's central leadership along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
It is not clear how closely linked the militants who seized the towns are to Yemen's al-Qaeda offshoot. The area also is home to many other Islamist groups.
An adviser to the Abyan governor, Gen. Abdel Hakim al-Salahi, who is a member of the ruling party, accused Mr. Saleh of having had "a very clear plot aimed at creating chaos in Yemen."
The plan, according to General al-Salahi, was for the Islamic militants to control at least five southern provinces "in order to spark the fears of the West and terrorize the people of Yemen."
The general said most of the militants involved are from groups that allied with Mr. Saleh during the 1994 war with southern separatists. But other elements have joined them recently, including some believed to have al-Qaeda ties, General al-Salahi said.