By Associated Press, April 21, 2012
SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s military regained part of a strategic southern city on Saturday after an intense battle with al-Qaida militants left 19 people dead as the government tries to purge the insurgents from their strongholds, officials said.
The battle in Zinjibar is part of attempts by the Yemeni government to regain parts of the country it lost to al-Qaida militants who took advantage of last year’s chaotic uprising against longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize new ground.
Military and medical officials said that 12 militants and seven troops died and nearly 30 militants were injured during the battle with Yemeni forces, who took control of the eastern part of Zinjibar.
The coastal city is the capital of Abyan province, and driving al-Qaida out of it would loosen al-Qaida’s grip over Yemen’s southern territories. The city also lies near key shipping lanes through which millions of barrels of oil pass every day.
The militants buried their dead in the nearby town of Jaar and turned a kindergarten there into a field hospital to treat their injured, medical officials said. The school was also being used as a command center by the militants, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In Lawder, another town in Abyan province, at least 250 al-Qaida militants and 37 government soldiers have been killed in two weeks of fighting, the defense ministry said Friday. Yemeni forces are trying to repel efforts by al-Qaida militants to regain control over the town which it lost last summer when residents took up arms and pushed the militants out.
On Saturday the ministry said it is sending more troops to the south in a sign of the intensifying fight there.
The war on al-Qaida is one of the most challenging tests facing the country’s new president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He took power after Saleh stepped down in February as part of power-transfer deal brokered by Arab Gulf countries and backed by the United States.
The U.S. believes al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch is the most dangerous arm of the terror group because of its repeated attempts to carry out attacks in the United States.
The power-transfer deal gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in return for relinquishing power, although his party still holds half of all government ministries. He has also remained in the country instead of going into exile as was anticipated.
After taking over, Hadi pledged to restructure the Yemeni military to better fight al-Qaida, but he’s been facing stiff resistance from loyalists to Saleh and family members who are still at the top of key military and security positions.
The opposition has accused Saleh of using his men to try to undermine his successor in a bid to return to office.
On Saturday his son Ahmed, who commands the Republican Guard forces, deployed his troops to the airport in the capital of Sanaa and occupied parts of the facility, officials there said. The show of defiance came after Hadi ordered the ouster of Saleh’s half brother and the Air Force Chief Commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar two weeks ago. The initial firing also sparked protests by al-Ahmar’s supporters who rolled tanks and armored vehicles onto the tarmac and forced authorities to cancel flights before the situation was resolved.
Officials said the airport’s operations were not affected by Saturday’s developments.