Yemen's army vehicles are seen in an area taken from al-Qaeda militants in Mayfaa, in the south-eastern province of Shabwa. File picture: Yemeni Defence Ministry, via Reuters

Aden - Suspected al-Qaeda gunmen stormed an airport in Yemen's southeastern Hadramawt province on Thursday, triggering an army intervention to evacuate the passengers of a civilian airliner, military and security officials said.

Three soldiers were killed in the attack on Sayun airport, while five more were killed in a suicide bombing that hit a nearby military headquarters, the officials said.

Troops were still in a standoff with the militants, who seized the airport control tower and took hostages before bombing it, a security official said.

Sayun is the main town in the Hadramawt valley, a jihadist stronghold in the province's interior, and was the scene of a spectacular May 24 raid by scores of militants that left 15 soldiers and police dead.

Attackers gunned down three soldiers at the entrance to the Sayun airport, which is also used by the air force, before taking control of parts of the facility, including the control tower, a security official said.

Simultaneously, a suicide bomber targeted a military base close to the airport, killing five soldiers, a military official said.

The attack on the airport took place as a Yemen Airways plane landed, a military official said.

Troops scrambled armoured vehicles to confront the militants and evacuate the passengers of the arriving aircraft in army buses through the northern gate of the airport, the official said.

The rugged terrain of Hadramawt provides hideouts for militants of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by Washington as the jihadist network's most dangerous affiliate.

On May 24, the militants launched a massive pre-dawn assault on Sayun, in which they attacked police and army bases and public buildings with suicide bombers, rocket-launchers and heavy machineguns.

Before withdrawing, they also ransacked the main post office and two banks.

President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi fired Sayun army commander General Mohammed Somali, over that attack, replacing him with one of his own loyalists, General Ahmed Ali Hadi.

Hadi had ordered security forces on high alert nationwide, including in the capital, after the army launched a ground offensive against al-Qaeda in late April in two southern provinces further west - Abyan and Shabwa.

The operation aims to expel the militants from smaller towns and villages in the two provinces that escaped a previous sweep in 2012.

Hadi has vowed to press the offensive until jihadists are eradicated from all of Yemen's territory.

Taking advantage of a collapse of central authority during a 2011 uprising that forced Hadi's predecessor, veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power, al-Qaeda seized swathes of the south and east.

Although government forces have captured several major towns, analysts say the army's gains may have been the result of a tactical retreat by al-Qaeda in coordination with Yemen's powerful tribes.

The army says 500 al-Qaeda militants have been killed in its latest operation, while 40 soldiers have died.

Al-Qaeda has launched a spate of spectacular attacks on army headquarters around the country in recent months.

In December, it assaulted the defence ministry in the heart of the capital, killing 56 people.

An April attack on army headquarters in the main southern city of Aden left at least 20 people dead.

AQAP has also been targeted in an intensifying drone war this year.

The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen, but US officials rarely acknowledge the covert operations.

Around 60 suspected jihadists were killed in a wave of strikes against AQAP bases and training camps in mid-April.

The drone programme has been defended by both the White House and Hadi, but has been sharply criticised by human rights groups for its civilian toll. - AFP