SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni forces killed seven alleged al-Qaeda militants in the latest fighting as part of a major offensive waged by the military, the defense ministry said Saturday.

Government forces have stepped up attacks during the past two weeks against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most active branch of the group in the world. Washington has assisted the Yemeni authorities with logistics, training and drone attacks.

The seven were killed in clashes while forces were combing the southern cities of Shabwa and Abyan, where the fighting has been centered.

Also Saturday, Shabwa’s governor, Ahmed Ali Bahag, said al-Qaeda militants kidnapped five civilians from local tribes they were formerly allied with, in retaliation for cooperating with the Yemeni army.

The governor asked for the help of the Red Cross in finding the abducted citizens and in relieving the refugees who fled their homes in the southern city of Meyfaa, amid the ongoing clashes. He said authorities are now repairing infrastructure and buildings damaged in the fight.

On Friday, Yemeni defense minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed escaped an assassination attempt as he was on his way to check up on forces in the southern city of Mahfad, a sprawling al-Qaeda base recaptured by the army.

The army has started to establish fixed military posts and checkpoints in areas recaptured from the militants in Mahfad, Azzan and Meyfaa to prevent them from returning from neighboring mountainous regions to which they have fled.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.