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Fighting with militants in Yemen kills 40

Armed tribesmen keep watch as they secure a street in Sanaa on Saturday. (Reuters)

Source : AP
SANAA | 11 Jun 2011

Yemeni soldiers battled militants Saturday in an attempt to drive them from several southern towns under the control of hundreds of the fighters. The clashes killed 40 people on both sides, officials said.

In a twist, the army commander leading the campaign to drive back the militants is among several top military figures who have turned against the country’s president and thrown their support behind the massive protest movement pushing for the leader’s ouster.

The commanders who abandoned Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, accuse him of trying to sow chaos and letting the southern towns fall into the hands of militants in an effort to persuade the US and other Western powers that without him in charge, Al-Qaeda would take control of the country.

Saturday’s fighting around Lawdar and Zinjibar killed 21 Al-Qaeda militants, the Defense Ministry said. Nineteen soldiers were also killed, said a local government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The surrounding Abyan province is one of the strongholds of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the US considers a more immediate threat than the terror network’s central leadership sheltering along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is not clear how closely linked the militants who seized the towns are to Yemen’s Al-Qaeda offshoot. The area is also home to many other groups.

In Lawdar, the militants attacked a vehicle carrying food supplies for a military camp, killing four soldiers, the local official said. In nearby Zinjibar, which militants seized at the end of May, a local official said army troops were massing at the southern outskirts of the city in preparation for a push to retake the town. Battles there killed 15 soldiers, the official said.

An adviser to the Abyan governor, Gen. Abdel Hakim Al-Salahi, who is a member of the ruling party, accused Saleh of having had “a very clear plot aimed at creating chaos in Yemen.” The plan, according to Al-Salahi, was for the militants to control at least five southern provinces “in order to spark the fears of the West and terrorize the people of Yemen.” Al-Salahi said the bulk of the militants involved are from groups that allied with Saleh in the past, during the 1994 war with southern separatists. But other elements have joined them recently, including some believed to have Al-Qaeda ties, Al-Salahi said.

“Things became very mixed up and the militants are fighting each other, as much as they are fighting the army units,” he said.

The fight against them is being led by Gen. Faisal Ragab, a battalion commander who defected to the opposition seeking Saleh’s ouster in March.

According to a military official close to Gen. Ragab, who is originally from Abyan, the army officers who have abandoned Saleh have made a commitment to fight militants while holding the president responsible.

He said troops have cornered the militants inside Abyan province and prevented their attempts to push out to other provinces in the south. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.


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