Source: Reuters, 04/06/2012
SANAA-The Yemeni army geared up for a push to try to take a southern coastal town from al Qaeda-linked fighters on Monday, residents said, part of a U.S.-backed offensive in a country Washington sees as a frontline of its war against the Islamist militants.
The United States and its Gulf allies are alarmed by the deteriorating security in Yemen, where al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula wing (AQAP) took advantage of a split in the military during an uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and seized territory in the south province of Abyan last year.
Shi'ite rebels known as Houthis also exploited the political upheaval and carved out their own state within a state in the rugged northern province of Saada, on the border with Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.
The United States, which helped engineer Saleh's replacement by his deputy in February, is backing an offensive in the south and has stepped up its campaign of drone strike assassinations of alleged al Qaeda members it says plot attacks from Yemen.
It has also sent dozens of military trainers and stepped up aid to Yemen where it wants President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to reunify the military and focus it against AQAP.
Yemeni troops have moved into the centre the southern town of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, where they fought AQAP militants on Sunday. They also clashed with the Islamists in the town of Jaar, some 30 km (20 miles) to the north.
Meanwhile hundreds of troops backed by tanks were closing in on the militant-held town of Shaqra, some 50 km (30 miles) along the coast east of Zinjibar, residents there said.
"They are getting ready to fight," a resident told Reuters by telephone.
Shaqra is on a major shipping route and the gateway for Somalis entering Yemen to fight alongside al Qaeda.
"LIKE A PLAGUE"
Meanwhile, two suicide bombers targeting an army checkpoint in Lawdar, another town in Abyan, killed four people and wounded another, the Defence Ministry said in a text message. The bombers, one of whom was dressed as a woman, were also killed.
"The attack was targeting Colonel Mohammed Batreeh, the head of military intelligence in Abyan province," a local official told Reuters. "He survived, but the innocent people were the ones who got killed."
Militants retreated last month from the town of Lawdar, some 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Zinjibar.
"Getting rid of those people needs time. They are like a plague," said Abu Saada, a tribesman fighting alongside the army in Abyan, referring to the AQAP fighters.
While fighting raged in the south, at least 34 people were killed in clashes overnight between Sunni Muslim Salafis and Houthi Shi'ite rebels in northern Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, wary of the rising regional power of Shi'ite Iran and is grappling with its own Shi'ite unrest in eastern provinces, fought the Houthis in north Yemen in 2009.
The U.S. envoy to Yemen said earlier this year there were signs that Shi'ite Iran was becoming more active in Yemen, posing a threat to the country's security and stability. Iran denies interfering there.
Saudi Arabia, a main regional U.S. ally, says Iran is fomenting unrest among its own Shi'ites in its east and in neighbouring Sunni-led Bahrain.
A spokesman for the Salafis - who see Shi'ites as heretics and espouse a puritanical creed with many followers in Saudi Arabia - said Houthi fighters attacked them on Sunday night in the Kataf area of the northern Saada province.
"We have regained control of a mountain site in the al-Damaj area after heavy clashes with the Houthis during which 18 of the attackers were killed along with 16 of ours," the spokesman told Reuters on Monday. Dozens were wounded in the clashes, he added.