ADEN, Yemen — Yemeni government forces, backed by local fighters, pushed al-Qaida-linked militants from two of their primary strongholds in the country’s south Tuesday, marking the government’s most significant victory since Islamist militants seized control of Abyan province more than a year ago.
The capture of Zinjibar, the provincial capital, and the nearby town of Jaar from fighters belonging to Ansar al-Shariah came after a weeks-long offensive that was undertaken by the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who assumed office in February after months of turmoil in which the military was deeply divided over calls for longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign.
Ansar al-Shariah is formally led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who also heads al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — a Yemen-based group that U.S. officials have dubbed al-Qaida’s most dangerous arm — but the extent of the operational links between the groups remains unclear. Witnesses have claimed to have seen known al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militants fighting alongside Ansar al-Shariah members.
Since Hadi’s inauguration, Yemen’s military has appeared to re-engage in the battle in Abyan after nearly a year of being distracted by the demands for Saleh to step down. As soon as Hadi, who’s from Abyan, was inaugurated, he declared the battle against the militants to be a “national and religious duty.” Yemen’s armed forces and local tribal fighters, backed by American intelligence, began a campaign against Ansar al-Shariah amid fierce fighting that’s left scores of casualties on both sides.
Militants acknowledged Tuesday that they’d abandoned the towns, but they characterized the move as a strategic withdrawal undertaken for humanitarian reasons and vowed revenge in the form of another attack in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where the recent suicide bombing of a military parade rehearsal killed nearly 100 soldiers.
More than 100 displaced Zinjibar residents — a small portion of the tens of thousands of civilians who’ve fled the fighting in Abyan — jammed a checkpoint Tuesday on the road that links Zinjibar to Aden in hopes of returning home, but the highway remained closed amid signs that the Ansar fighters hadn’t yet been defeated. Fierce fighting continued in Shaqra, in the east of the province, and there were fears that those who’d fled Zinjibar would be able to regroup in the rough terrain of neighboring Shabwa province, another hotbed of militancy.
Many officials also were loath to declare victory, saying that while the recapture of Zinjibar and Jaar was a significant breakthrough, the war was far from over.
“Yemen’s military, with the direct support of the patriotic citizens of Abyan, have broken the strength of al-Qaida,” said Mohamed al-Basha, the spokesman for Yemen’s Embassy in Washington. “Despite the battles won by the military, al-Qaida continues to be a major threat to the security and strength of Yemen.”