Civilians Killed as Yemen 'Strives' to Regain al-Qaida-Held Towns

Yemeni regime’s fighter planes launched airstrikes Monday on one of the two southern cities occupied by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in an apparent attempt to validate President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s claim that Islamist militants’ threat following an uprising was real. This cost civilians at least 13 lives while many more were killed in government clampdown on protests.

Local residents told Reuters that Yemeni jets on May 30 bombed militant areas around the city of Zinjibar, the capital of the southern Abyan province, but the shelling also hit residential buildings killing at least 13 people. Separately, three Yemeni soldiers were killed in an ambush with militants near Zinjibar. On May 29, six security personnel were killed in a shootout.

“The city is devastated. All of its residents have left. Even the dogs, animals and donkeys have abandoned it,” Reuters quoted an opposition member in Zinjibar as saying.

The AQAP, a militant Islamist organization in Yemen and Saudi Arabia believed to be a branch of now-deceased Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and seen as a major threat to the United States, sees the Yemeni government as “the agents of the Americans.” AQAP militants captured Jaar city in the Abyan province – a stronghold of the militants – in March, and they also seized the provincial capital city on May 29. The militants reportedly took control of several government buildings, security headquarters, banks and other facilities.

Until recently, Washington was backing Saleh’s regime, an important partner in the global war on terrorism. Exploiting Western fears that pro-al-Qaida militants could exploit anarchy in Yemen to take control of territory, President Saleh had warned foreign powers that lack of support to curb the uprising could be counterproductive.

Saleh’s political opponents suspect his troops acceded control to the militants to prove him right and keep him in power. Many defected Yemeni army officials, now part of the opposition-backed anti-government protests, told the media on May 29 that President Saleh had “disrupted the military institution” and “handed over” the southern province to terrorist groups.

The country’s opposition has assured Western nations of their capability of combating al-Qaida in Yemen if Saleh steps down. “We are in contact with the EU and the United States embassy in the country ... and we’ve said we are ready to sign an agreement with them immediately the day Ali Saleh leaves,” Al Jazeera quoted Abdel Rahman Ba Fadel, a member of Yemen’s opposition Islah party, as saying.

China’s Xinhua news agency said hundreds of al-Qaida militants began to withdraw from Zinjibar city last night. However, it also said that the militants were moving from Zinjibar towards Jaar city, which they had seized in March, and had vacated some government buildings they had seized during the past two days.

“A number of vehicles were seen carrying a number of dead and wounded al-Qaida militants while heading towards the city of Jaar, the official added,” Xinhua added.

Meanwhile, anti-Saleh protests continued and so did the government’s crackdown. At least 20 people were killed yesterday in southern Taiz city after soldiers fired indiscriminately on a protest camp, Al Jazeera reported. Security forces set fire to tents of the protesters and fired water cannons and tear gas at the crowd, it said.

There were also reports of four explosions in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, as the anti-government protests intensified across the country and government troops continued their clampdown.

What started as protests against unemployment, economic conditions and corruption in Yemen in January soon turned into an uprising seeking ouster of the Yemeni president, who has been in power for 32 years. In April, Saleh accepted a proposal to resign and transfer control to his deputy, but he has not gone ahead to strike a deal with the protesters.