Monday, 30 May 2011

Islamists Seize a Yemeni City, Stoking Fears

Source: New york Times


As Islamist militants were consolidating control over a second city in southern Yemen, seizing banks, government offices and the security headquarters, news agencies reported on Monday that the Yemeni air force was responding with bombing runs.

Residents in the coastal city of Zinjibar told news agencies that they had seen warplanes dropping bombs in an effort to dislodge the militants and that the army had begun artillery shelling.

The fall of Zinjibar to self-styled holy warriors who claimed to have “liberated” it from “the agents of the Americans” fed into Western fears that militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda could exploit the breakdown of authority to take control of territory.

Political opponents of Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, portrayed the takeover as a ploy by Mr. Saleh to prove to wavering allies why they needed to keep him in power.

While Mr. Saleh, who has faced months of massive street protests demanding his ouster, has frequently warned that militants would take over the country if he left, there was no evidence on Sunday that he had any role in allowing Zinjibar to fall.

The fighting in the south came after a week in which tribal fighting in the capital, Sana, pushed the country to the brink of civil war. That front seemed to quiet on Sunday as the government struck a cease-fire deal with its tribal rivals, bringing relative calm here after days of fierce fighting in which more than 100 people were killed.

Violence broke out between the two sides last Monday after Mr. Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to sign an agreement leading to his resignation. It was the third time since the uprising began in January that Mr. Saleh had agreed to transfer power, and the third time he reneged on the promise.

Officials described the truce as tenuous, and gun fire and shelling were heard in the capital late on Sunday night.

The protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in cities across Yemen continued, and at the largest one, in the central city of Taiz, security forces fired at protesters from a government building on Sunday, killing four, according to a local doctor, Abdul Rahim al-Samie.

Early on Monday, protesters there said that plainclothes men were setting their tents on fire and destroying others with bulldozers.

The United States has until recently backed Mr. Saleh as an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda, whose Yemeni branch is considered one of the most active terrorist threats against the United States and Europe.

The militants who took over the town of Jaar in March and Zinjibar this weekend are not known to have ties to Al Qaeda, but the volatile province of Abyan, where both cities are located, is filled with citizens who are sympathetic to the group.

Residents said that despite the efforts of a handful of soldiers, who mounted a brief defense, the town fell quickly and easily to several hundred militants.

Most of the military quickly abandoned the town on Friday, residents said, but it was impossible to determine whether they had been ordered to do so.

They also said that the militants had been driving around the city in cars with loudspeakers blaring, “We declare that Zinjibar fell in the hands of mujahedeen after it was liberated from the agents of the Americans.”

A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said that five soldiers had been killed in the fighting there since Friday.

The former defense minister, Abdullah Ali Eliwa, accused Mr. Saleh of ordering his forces “to hand over Zinjibar” to the militants in order to “frighten people that if he goes, Yemen will become Somalia.”

He offered no proof of that claim, and by Sunday government forces were firing artillery at the militants, which experts said suggested they were either not complicit or that the demonstration had run its course.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University, said that Mr. Saleh “has certainly exaggerated the Al Qaeda threat throughout the years,” finding that foreign aid increases when the threat appears to be higher.

Mr. Saleh warned in a speech a week ago that Abyan would fall to Al Qaeda if he were forced from office. And when militants took over Jaar, Mr. Saleh in several speeches claimed that Al Qaeda was running the entire province of Abyan, a stark exaggeration.

Mr. Johnsen said it had not been determined conclusively whether the militants there have ties to Al Qaeda. The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has commented on the takeover of Jaar, but has not claimed responsibility for it, he said.

Clearly the terrorist organization has taken advantage of the chaos to raise its profile, and the fighting in Zinjibar was another example of militants using the lack of authority to advance their own causes. In the north, Houthi rebels established themselves as the rulers of Saada Province in March after government officials fled the area.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a stronghold in southeastern Yemen, which is believed to be the base of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric whose efforts as a Qaeda propagandist and plotter have gained prominence in the organization.

American officials have expressed alarm that the group has been allowed a freer hand in Yemen since the turmoil began, and have reported a stream of Qaeda operatives making their way to Yemen from other parts of the world to join the fight there.

The United States, which had refrained from criticizing Mr. Saleh even as his supporters fired on demonstrators, quietly dropped its support for him two months ago, viewing his position as no longer tenable and his value as a counterterrorism asset diminished by his declining power.

Nonetheless, American officials have pressed for a resolution that would allow its counterterrorism operations in Yemen to continue.

In Sana, Yemeni officials said Mr. Saleh had agreed to a truce with his historic tribal rivals the Ahmar family, and there were tangible signs of a reduction in tensions on Sunday.

Tribesmen from the Hashid tribal confederation loyal to the Ahmar family began Sunday to hand over to the authorities government buildings that they had occupied last week.

“We will hand over the other ministries one by one gradually,” Hashem al-Ahmar, one of the 10 Ahmar brothers, told reporters on Sunday.

“There is a truce and it is still holding,” said Abdul Karim Aleryani, a prominent governing party official and an adviser to Mr. Saleh. But a spokesman for Sadiq al-Ahmar, Abdulqawi Qaisi, told local reporters that the Ahmars would fully comply with a cease-fire only if the government removed its security forces from their posts in houses near the Ahmar compound in the Hasaba district in northern Sana.

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