Source: Wall Street Journal, By OLIVER HOLMES
SANA'A—Yemeni security officials said Tuesday that government forces have trapped al Qaeda militants in a village in the southern province of Abyan after a week of bombardments that have driven hundreds of civilians out of the area.
The offensive is the latest government effort aimed at uprooting militants affiliated with the local chapter of the global terror group here. The government has targeted at least two other towns in coordinated military efforts in recent months.
The government has taken credit for making gains against the militants in those operations, though the outcome in the remote villages where the fighting is taking place is difficult to accurately gauge. Previous claims that government forces have killed or captured top militant leaders in earlier offensives have, on occasion, proven to be inaccurate.
The U.S. is backing the Sana'a government in its fight, with training and special-operations forces. It's unclear what role, if any, the American government is playing in the current offensive in Abyan. A U.S. spokesman for the embassy declined to comment about U.S. involvement in the current operation.
The government offensive is centered in the region from which al Qaeda earlier this month declared the formation of a new militia aimed at toppling the government. Over the weekend, the Yemeni military pounded the city of Mudiyah—just over 150 miles southeast of the capital Sana'a—with tank and artillery shells, as well as airstrikes. The barrage has sent more than 300 civilians fleeing the city, according to a Yemeni human-rights organization.
Security officials say al Qaeda militants have fled to the village of Tha'aba, where they are now encircled by government forces.
"Al Qaeda elements are using women and children as human shields after we surrounded them in Tha'aba," Abyan deputy police chief Muhammed al Khader told reporters Tuesday. "We have evacuated people in the area, and security forces are still chasing 20 militants who fled to the mountains and valleys," he said.
The military claimed they destroyed "a number of al Qaeda's hideouts" in Mudiyah and the adjacent districts. Fighter jets roared south over Sana'a Tuesday morning. Eyewitnesses in Abyan said air raids had stopped, but gunfire could still be heard.
The military has said the offensive was in retaliation for the assassination of Mudiyah's security director, Abdullah al Baham, last Thursday. Later that day, Abyan governor Ahmed al Maisari was ambushed in the same area as he was inspecting the site of the assassination, local security officials said. The governor escaped unharmed, but militants killed his brother.
Sana'a launched two, large-scale skirmishes on the nearby towns of al Hota and Lawder in August and September, leaving dozens dead.
U.S. fears over Yemen were ratcheted up after Yemen's al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day. The group has also been blamed for two attacks on British embassy vehicles this year.
A recent worry for Sana'a is that the volatility and mayhem of Abyan could spill over into the nearby, southern port city of Aden, an ex-British colony and the economic capital of the republic. The city hosts an international soccer tournament next month, but regular bombs attacks and violent clashes with police have cast doubts over the feasibility of hosting the event