* Army retake last stronghold of al Qaeda in Abyan Province
* Military aim to capture last rebel bastion of Azzan
* At least 84 militants killed in Abyan and Shabwa provinces (Adds Shaqra death toll rising to 31, 30 killed in Shabwa)
ADEN, June 15 (Reuters) - Yemen's army recaptured the last al Qaeda stronghold in Abyan province on Friday, officials and residents said, and victory appeared close for their offensive to drive Islamist militants from towns they seized more than a year ago.
The rout of the Islamists from the port town of Shaqra puts an end to their short reign in Abyan, during which they governed large swathes of the province according to strict Islamic sharia rules.
Jubilant residents in Shaqra and neighbouring towns took to the streets to celebrate as security forces opened a number of roads that had been shut down during the military campaign.
The United States has provided training for the army offensive and other support, including drone strikes, concerned that al Qaeda had gained a new foothold in the Middle East.
At least 31 militants were killed on Friday during clashes to retake Shaqra, military officials said. Government troops continued fighting in the adjacent province of Shabwa in their bid to recapture al Qaeda's last bastion, Azzan, killing 53 militants.
The Islamist militants had captured three towns in the southern Abyan province, including strategically important Zinjibar, amid a power vacuum last year as popular protests weakened former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's grip on power.
Yemeni officials said the fighters fled Shaqra to a mountainous region to the west of it or went to Azzan, the last town under al Qaeda's control, in Shabwa province.
Yemen's Defence Minister, Major-General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad, told Reuters this week that the military's new goal was to regain control of Azzan. Officials said on Friday they hoped the town would fall within days.
Fleeing militants, including Jalal al-Baleidi, also known as Abu Hamza al-Zinjibari, the leader of Ansar al Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) in Abyan, were believed to be seeking refuge in tribal areas. The group is an offshoot of al Qaeda.
Many of the militants had escaped to their towns and villages in the south and blended in with civilians, security sources told Reuters.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is believed to be the most active branch of the global network and has plotted a number of foiled attempts against U.S. targets.
The U.S.-backed offensive, launched more than a month ago, forced the militants out of Zinjibar and Jaar on Tuesday in the army's most significant victory against them in more than a year of turmoil that took Yemen to the brink of civil war.
But the militants warned they would strike back.
On Thursday, Yemeni soldiers killed at least 40 Islamists and captured one of their outposts in heavy fighting in Shaqra.
Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and fighter jets are taking part in the offensive, joined by local tribesmen opposed to the militants.
U.S. officials say that the new Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is more much more cooperative in the fight against Islamist militancy than his predecessor Saleh, who handed power to Hadi this year after months of protests.
As part of the military's bid to retake Azzan, at least 23 Islamist fighters were killed during overnight clashes near gas facilities in Belhaf in Shabwa province.
Among the clashes on Friday, military planes bombed a convoy of vehicles laden with Islamist militants near Azzan, killing at least 30 of them, a military official said, adding that the militants had been fleeing Shaqra. (Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Andrew Roche)