Yemeni official says army has driven al-Qaida militants out of besieged town in south province

By Ahmed Al-haj, AP
Friday, September 24, 2010

Yemeni army drives al-Qaida out of besieged town

SAN’A, Yemen — Yemeni troops on Friday managed to drive al-Qaida fighters from a southern town after five days of clashes, a senior security official said, ending an operation that was part of the government’s escalated campaign to uproot the terror network’s local offshoot.

The military, backed by tanks and heavy artillery, laid siege in Shabwa province on Monday to retake the town of Hawta, which was earlier seized by the militants.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Maqdashi, head of Shabwa security, said the militants fled Friday into the mountains, where the army was chasing after them.

However, tribal chiefs in the area said they had negotiated an end to the siege and persuaded the militants to leave peacefully. The chiefs, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal, said the army entered the town without fighting after the militants had already left.

Yemen has long struggled to break an increasingly fierce al-Qaida offshoot and wrest control of lawless areas in the south from powerful tribes, some of which are sympathetic to al-Qaida and other Islamic militants roaming the region.

Despite obvious difficulties in overpowering the militants in Shabwa, officials have praised the offensive.

But Shabwa elder, Hassan Banan, claimed the government had exaggerated the intensity of the fighting to get more foreign aid for its campaign against al-Qaida.

Thousands of residents fled Hawta and the surrounding area after the fighting broke out. Abdullah Atig, a local Shabwa official, said Friday that preparations were under way to bring the people back to their homes and a committee was formed to help them.

On Wednesday, government forces launched multiple assaults on Hawta but failed to break the militants’ defenses. Residents said four soldiers were wounded and were rushed away in ambulances that day.

In one attempt, Yemeni troops tried to repel from helicopters into the town but met with fierce resistance. In another attempt, six soldiers were wounded by militant sniper fire as they tried to mount barricades put up by the militants on Hawta’s outskirts, local officials had said.

Shabwa governor Ali al-Ahmadi had said that at least four al-Qaida fighters died in the fighting and that the militants killed one civilian. Al-Maqdashi, the area security chief, said on Wednesday that 28 militants had been arrested.

The figures could not be independently verified since reporters are not allowed into the area of the fighting.

The government operation, which reportedly aimed to uproot a 120-man militant cell, came after several al-Qaida attacks against Yemeni security forces at checkpoints and security outposts.

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world and beside the al-Qaida threat, it is beset by other major internal security problems — an on-and-off Shiite rebellion in the north and a separate secessionist movement in the south.

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