Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Yemeni army shelling kills more than 20 militants

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni government forces shelled a southern town overrun by radical Islamists, killing at least 20 militants in the past two days, residents said Tuesday.

In the capital Sanaa, meanwhile, Yemen's disparate opposition groups announced a new alliance they say will unite all forces seeking to oust longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh, who is in Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from a June attack on his palace, remains in power despite more than five months of mass protests across Yemen calling for his ouster.

The uprising against his 33-year rule has led to a collapse in security across the country, the Arab world's poorest and home to an active al-Qaida branch, and the U.S. fears al-Qaida-linked groups could exploit the chaos to step up operations.

Since the uprising began in mid-February, radical Islamists have seized entire towns in southern Abyan province, and government troops have been fighting to dislodge them. Over the weekend, Yemeni army forces began shelling the militant-controlled town of Jaar in Abyan, and the barrage continued sporadically through Tuesday morning.

Jaar resident Walid al-Hawshadi said Tuesday he saw militants drive at least 20 of their dead out of the city for burial. All had been killed in the shelling in the previous two days, he said.

Other residents gave similar accounts.

The fighting in Abyan has caused thousands to flee since June, some on foot, many with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.

With Saleh out of the country, Yemen's opposition has tried to seize the initiative to push him from power, and a number of anti-Saleh parties and other groups formed an alliance Tuesday to better organize their efforts.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said the group, called the Alliance of Forces of the Revolution, would unify the demands of Yemen's often scattered opposition to produce a stronger front.

"This is the horse that will lead the cart," he said.

The alliance includes opposition parties, defected military units, media, and youth protesters who have camped out in Yemen's public squares, al-Sabri said.

The decision to join the alliance reflects the dwindling hopes among Yemen's formal opposition for a proposal by the country's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors to end the crisis by having Saleh step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The U.S. has endorsed the plan as the best way forward for Yemen.

But Yemen's formal opposition, which helped negotiate the proposal terms, doubts it will ever be carried out. Saleh has repeatedly agreed to the proposal, only to back out at the last minute.

"I think that the Gulf proposal has been drained of its purpose," al-Sabri said.

Still, the disparate opposition groups have often struggled to agree on their demands other than the desire to see Saleh gone.

Last week, protest leaders announced the formation of a so-called shadow government that is to represent the thousands of demonstrators who have filled public squares across Yemen since late January.

Al-Sabri said he respected that move as a "courageous step by the revolutionary youth," but claimed his alliance would be more effective in achieving the demands of "the revolution."

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