Yemeni soldiers battled Islamic militants today in an attempt to drive them from several southern towns under the control of hundreds of the fighters. The clashes killed 30 people on both sides, officials said.
In an unusual twist, the army commander leading the campaign to drive back the Islamists is among several top military figures who have turned against the country’s president and thrown their support behind the massive protest movement pushing for the autocratic leader to quit.
The commanders who abandoned President Ali Abdullah Saleh accuse him of letting the southern towns fall into the hands of Islamic militants in an effort to persuade the US and other Western powers that, without him in charge, al Qaida will take control of the country.
Today’s fighting around Lawdar and Zinjibar killed 21 al-Qaida militants, the Defence Ministry said. Nine soldiers were also killed, said a local government official.
The surrounding Abyan province is one of the strongholds of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which the US considers a more immediate threat than the terror network’s central leadership sheltering along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It is not clear how closely linked the militants who seized the towns are to Yemen’s al-Qaida offshoot. The area is also home to many other Islamist groups.
The fight against them is being led by General Faisal Ragab, a battalion commander who defected to the opposition in March.
In Lawdar, the Islamic militants attacked a vehicle carrying food supplies for a military camp, killing four soldiers, the local official said.
In nearby Zinjibar, which Islamic militants seized at the end of May, a local official said army troops were massing at the southern outskirts of the city in preparation for a push to retake the town. Battles there killed five soldiers, the official said.
President Saleh has resisted calls to step down by hundreds of thousands of protesters who have filled the streets of major cities in Yemen since early February, but a deadly crackdown has failed to clear them from the streets.
Pressure from the United States and Yemen’s neighbouring countries has been building on Mr Saleh to step down as part of a negotiated deal with opposition parties that would preserve some measure of order in the fragile nation.
The crisis descended into armed street battles two weeks ago between the president’s forces and gunmen loyal to Yemen’s most powerful tribal leader, who has turned against Mr Saleh.
Mr Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for nearly 33 years, was seriously wounded in an attack on the president’s compound in the capital a week ago and had to be taken to Saudi Arabia for urgent medical treatment.
The US, which had relied on Mr Saleh to help fight the militants, fears al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen will take advantage of the instability. US forces have carried out several recent air attacks on al Qaida targets in the country.
While al-Qaida’s estimated 300 hardcore members in Yemen may gain more room to manoeuvre and plot attacks against the West, it is unlikely they could make a serious push to take control of Yemen, as the president claims.