Rebels Seize Buildings in Southern Yemen
Source: New York Times,16/06/2011
By Laura Kasinof
SANA, Yemen — Militants made a serious incursion early Wednesday into a provincial capital in Yemen’s southeast, warning government officials to leave or face retaliation. The attack was the latest case of armed groups’ taking advantage of the security vacuum created by the country’s prolonged political crisis.
Southern Yemen is a hotbed of antigovernment factions, including separatists and Islamic militants, only some of whom belong to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s local branch of the international terrorist network.
The militants, whose affiliation was not known, took over the central bank and a police base, along with other key buildings in the city of Hawta, the capital of restive Lahij Province, residents said. Security forces withdrew, they said, leaving civilians to try to fight off the militants. They said the militants announced through megaphones that all government officials must leave within 24 hours or face retaliation, and then retreated from the city.
“In the morning, fear was controlling all of the civilians,” said Ayed, a Hawta resident who did not want his last name used out of fear of retaliation. “Many stores closed. Many civilians left town. Now there is a state of apprehension in the city. There are few people on the streets.”
An official from the Lahij governor’s office and another Yemeni official confirmed the clashes, but said security forces had fought the militants. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.
The official from the governor’s office said two soldiers were killed. He said he did not know what group the armed men belonged to.
Two weeks ago, rebels took over parts of the capital of Abyan, the province to the southeast of Lahij. There, in the city of Zinjibar, security forces continue to battle militants, forcing hundreds to flee to the port city of Aden. In March, militants overran another city in Abyan, Jaar.
It was unclear whether the incursions were by one group or several. Zinjibar and Hawta are about 75 miles apart. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has not claimed responsibility for the fighting in Abyan and Lahij on jihadi Internet forums, according to terrorism experts.
Meanwhile, President Ali Abdullah Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment of serious injuries he suffered in an attack on the mosque at the presidential palace on June 3. The vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, is officially acting as president, but Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, has moved into the palace, and neither he nor Mr. Hadi has shown any indication of planning for a real transfer of presidential power called for by Western and Persian Gulf governments. Antigovernment protests continue daily in major cities throughout the country.
To contain the Yemeni Qaeda group during this time of uncertainty, the Central Intelligence Agency has begun using armed drones to attack those identified as members. An American official acknowledged Tuesday that the United States was building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for the drones.
Last week, an American drone strike killed several militant suspects in Abyan, including one identified as a midlevel operative for the Qaeda branch. According to witnesses, four civilians were also killed in the airstrike.