Agence France-Presse January 16, 2012
ADEN- Al-Qaida militants swept into the Yemen town of Rada overnight and overran it within hours, marking a significant advance by the extremists towards the capital Sanaa, officials said on Monday.
The takeover of Rada, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southeast of Sanaa, was the latest in a series of towns and cities - until now in the south and east - to fall as Al-Qaida takes advantage of a weakened central government reeling from months of protests.
Several sources in the town said more than 1,000 Al-Qaida gunmen had participated in the invasion of Rada, which lies within striking distance of a strategic highway that connects Sanaa with Yemen's southern and southwestern regions.
"Al-Qaida has taken over the town and is now the de facto power there," a local official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The government's security forces have retreated to their bases and militants are now manning the checkpoints in and out of the town," he added.
The official, a senior member of the local government, said the militants had also seized the town's central prison and police headquarters.
According to a local tribal chief, more than 100 prisoners were released, "including members of Al-Qaida." Two soldiers guarding the prison were killed, local officials said.
Two other people were killed later in the day during a brief exchange of fire between armed gunmen and Al-Qaida militants in a central market area, one official said.
The takeover began late Sunday and was completed by dawn on Monday without any significant resistance from local security forces stationed in the area, according to tribal officials.
"There were barely any clashes at all," one local tribal leader told AFP.
Tribesmen have accused the government of complacency and said despite repeated warnings, the government had done little to prevent Rada's fall.
"We've been warning the authorities about the Al-Qaida threat for months. We told them that their actions and behaviour pointed to their intentions to take over," local tribal leader Sheikh Ammar Al-Teiri told AFP.
"The government has absolutely no role here anymore," he added.
According to Teiri, local tribesmen decided to join forces and help protect the city from an Al-Qaida invasion, "but they showed up in such force it became clear that in this town at least, they were stronger than the state," he said.
The takeover of Rada, located in Yemen's al-Bayda province, was accompanied by what appears to be the formal appointment of a local "emir," or prince, to govern the newly seized territory, a posting given to the brother-in-law of slain US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi.
Tareq al-Dahab, who is married to Awlaqi's sister, was named to the post, tribal officials said.
Anwar al-Awlaqi, the first US citizen to be put on a US list of militants targeted for assassination, was killed on September 30 in a suspected US drone strike in Yemen.
He was believed to be the leader of overseas operations for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's deadliest global branch.
In August, the 15-member UN Security Council said it was "deeply concerned at the worsening security situation, including the threat from Al-Qaida," in Yemen.
AQAP and its local affiliates, the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), have taken advantage of almost a full year of deadly protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bolster their presence in the southeastern Shabwa province and nearby Marib.
Abyan province of southern Yemen, however, has been the main target of Al-Qaida's growing strength, with militants taking control of the provincial capital Zinjibar in May and capturing several other towns since.
Zinjibar's chief tribal leader, Sheikh Tariq al-Fadl meanwhile called Monday on the Yemeni authorities to find a "peaceful, political solution" to the Al-Qaida threat.
"The fact is that Al-Qaida is in control of Abyan and Shabwa among other areas and is implementing Islamic law in these places," he told AFP in a phone interview from Zinjibar.
A military solution is no longer possible," he said.
Fadl accused Saleh and his sons who control Yemen's most powerful military units of abandoning the south.
"Where are the special forces...that Saleh and his sons control? Why have they not come to cleanse Zinjibar" of militants, he asked.
News of Al-Qaida's victory quickly spread through Bayda province, prompting thousands from the provincial capital - also named Bayda - to march in anti-government protests, demanding the provincial governor's resignation and the ouster of the region's security chiefs.
Yemen opposition groups have repeatedly accused Saleh of intentionally allowing militants to take control of Yemeni cities to convince Western leaders, who have been calling for his ouster, that a Yemen without him at the helm will fall to extremists.
Hundreds of militants and soldiers have been killed in battles between Islamist fighters and government forces trying to retake captured territories.