ADEN, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Two militants and five soldiers were killed on Thursday during a Yemeni army raid on a mountainous area where insurgents linked to al Qaeda have been holed up since they were driven out of two southern towns last year, military sources said.
Two suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) were also captured in the raid, launched on Thursday morning with army tanks and artillery.
Yemeni military sources said the campaign was aimed at flushing out militants who have taken refuge in caves in the area after they were driven out of Jaar and Zinjibar in a U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive last year.
Ansar al-Sharia, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), took advantage of a power vacuum during the 2011 popular protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize the two towns.
Most of the militants fled to the desert or into remote mountain regions, where they have been waging hit-and-run attacks on army installations or military personnel.
"Five army soldiers were killed, 10 were injured and one popular committee member was killed," said an army source referring to local militiamen allied with the government.
The United States and its allies are concerned about the presence of AQAP and its affiliates next door to the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and close to key global shipping lanes.
AQAP is believed by Washington to be the most active branch of the global network and has plotted a number of botched attempts against U.S. targets. U.S. drones have repeatedly launched air strikes against its members.
The Yemeni army is waging a separate operation to the north-east against suspected Islamist militants in al-Bayda province, where three Western hostages are believed to be held.
At least six insurgents and 14 government soldiers have been killed in the fighting since it began on Monday with some 8,000 Yemeni soldiers involved. Eleven of the 14 soldiers died in a suicide bombing outside the town of Radda.
The fighting was suspended on Wednesday while tribal leaders tried to secure the release of the hostages -- a Finnish couple and an Austrian man who were kidnapped by tribesmen last month but were later sold to the insurgents. (Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Amena Bakr; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)