SANAA , Yemen -- Yemen's military began a fresh ground assault against al-Qaeda militants southeast of the capital on Monday and pledged to release three Westerners taken hostage last month.
At least 4,000 Yemeni troops, backed by scores of tanks and armored vehicles, were sent to the area of Radaa, a town in the al-Bayda province, ahead of a Sunday night deadline demanding the Islamists' withdrawal.
"We are going to release the kidnapped foreigners," said General Mohammed al-Maqdashi, Yemen's Deputy Chief of Staff, referring to a Finnish couple and Austrian man kidnapped on December 21 in Sanaa.
The Finnish and Austrian men were both studying Arabic in the capital. The Finnish woman arrived in Yemen to visit her husband just 24 hours before being snatched by gunmen from one of the capital's busiest and most heavily guarded streets in broad daylight last month.
The hostage-takers have so far failed to make any ransom demands -- as is common for tribal kidnappings in Yemen -- and the three are believed to have been sold on to Islamic militants.
At least 18 people were killed, eight of them soldiers, and at least a dozen wounded in two separate bombings in apparent retaliation against the new military campaign. Another soldier was killed in an ambush early on Monday.
The last attempt by Yemeni security forces to rescue 16 hostages -- including two American citizens -- left three British citizens and one Australian dead in 1998. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still holding a Saudi diplomat, kidnapped in March last year. A Swiss woman has also been held captive since March 2012.
Two apparent U.S. drone strikes killed two suspected al-Qaeda militants and a civilian when one missile missed its target and hit a residential home in al-Bayda province last Wednesday, according to local reports.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's insurgent wing of Ansar al-Sharia briefly took control of Radaa, a town, 90 miles southeast of the capital, in January 2012, before a negotiated withdrawal. Mediation with government representatives this time has failed.
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