Source: New York Times, By ROBERT F. WORTH
DAMASCUS, Syria — Yemeni troops and counterterrorism teams have laid siege to a town in southern Yemen where several dozen Qaeda militants were said to be holed up, in an apparent escalation of the Yemeni government’s campaign against the group, witnesses and officials said.
Thousands of civilians have fled the town of Hawta in recent days, after the government warned them to stay clear of the fighting, witnesses and relief officials said. Local officials said the military was intermittently shelling the town with tanks and artillery and firing on the jihadists from attack helicopters on Monday and Tuesday.
The battle in Hawta follows a recent rise in deadly attacks by Al Qaeda’s regional branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen. The militant group drew international attention last Dec. 25 when it claimed responsibility for training a Nigerian who tried to set off a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound jetliner.
The group was relatively inactive for some time afterward, but in recent months a series of brazen raids on checkpoints and security outposts have left at least 50 police officers and soldiers dead, mostly in southern Yemen.
This month, Al Qaeda’s regional branch issued a “death list” of 55 police officials it threatened to kill, and late on Monday it claimed credit for the August kidnapping of a senior intelligence official in northern Yemen and gave the government 48 hours to release two imprisoned Qaeda members or face unspecified consequences.
The fighting comes as the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, is in the Yemeni capital, Sana, to talk to President Ali Abdullah Saleh about American military and economic support. In the past, United States officials have expressed concern that the Yemeni government was not taking the Qaeda threat seriously enough, though it has worked more closely in the past year with the American military on counterterrorism efforts, including several American airstrikes.
Later this week the Friends of Yemen, a group of Western and Arab governments formed this year to help shore up Yemen’s stability, is scheduled to meet in New York. Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has struggled with an intermittent armed rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, and is increasingly dependent on foreign assistance.
Hawta, in southern Yemen’s mountainous Shabwa Province, is at the heart of the remote area east and south of the capital where Al Qaeda’s regional arm has sought sanctuary. It is also just to the north of a major new liquid natural gas pipeline — a crucial resource in a country that is rapidly running out of oil and water — and Yemeni officials have voiced concern about the possibility that jihadists could rupture the line.
Few details were available about the fighting in Hawta, which began on Monday. Three of the militants had been killed and four had been wounded as of early Tuesday, said Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi, the governor of Shabwa. It was not clear whether any of the jihadists in the town were among the leaders of Al Qaeda’s regional branch, which is thought to number a few hundred members.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said on its Web site that the Qaeda fighters had prevented a number of villagers from leaving and were using them as human shields. One local tribal leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said the militants had refused all efforts by local tribesmen to persuade them to leave the town peacefully.
Hawta is the hometown of Abdullah al-Mehdar, a Qaeda member who was killed earlier this year, and it has been known for some time as a sanctuary for the group.
Al Qaeda’s regional branch has taken advantage in recent months of the rising lawlessness in southern Yemen, where a secessionist movement has gathered force over the past year. North and South Yemen, previously separate nations, united in 1990 but fought a brief civil war four years later, and many southerners claim the north has mistreated them and starved them economically ever since.
Most leaders of the Southern Movement, as it is known, espouse nonviolence and condemn terrorism. But a rising hatred of the government throughout the south has fostered violent confrontations with the police and a chaotic environment where Al Qaeda appears to be flourishing.
Yemen also appears to be taking stronger courtroom measures against jihadists and people suspected of being their supporters. The Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Hider Shaea, who gained prominence after interviewing Qaeda leaders last year, was charged on Sunday with assisting the group, helping it recruit members and acting as its spokesman, Yemeni officials said.
Mr. Shaea has written extensively for aljazeera.net and has been widely quoted in the Western press; he had been planning to participate in a conference on Yemen in Washington earlier this year, but was unable to attend. He is the only journalist known to have interviewed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who is believed to have been in contact both with the gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and the Nigerian in the airline plot last December, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Mr. Awlaki is now hiding in Shabwa, and capturing or killing him has become a high priority for the American military.
Mr. Shaea’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, said Tuesday that he had seen no evidence to substantiate the charges, and that Mr. Shaea had bruises on his body, apparently the result of police beatings after he was arrested last month. Kamal Sharaf, a cartoonist, was also arrested with Mr. Shaea, though the charges against him were not clear.
Four other men were charged in Sana on Monday with plotting terrorist attacks, including a Yemeni-German teenager, Rami Hans Harman.
Prosecutors said the men trained alongside a suicide bomber who tried earlier this year to assassinate Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, Timothy Torlot. No one was killed in that attack except the bomber.
Qaeda Unit Says It Kidnapped 7
PARIS — A regional branch of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility on Tuesday for kidnapping seven foreign workers in Niger last Thursday, including five French citizens.
They were working for French companies, including the nuclear group Areva, which mines uranium in the Arlit region of Niger.
A spokesman for the militant group, in an audio statement on Al Jazeera, said that it would set demands for the release of the workers to the French government and warned France against taking military action.
French forces are trying to track down the kidnappers with sensor-equipped aircraft.
Muhammad al-Ahmadi and Nasser Arrabyee contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen.