Yemeni military seizes southern al Qaeda stronghold


Yemeni government forces captured al Qaeda’s main stronghold in the southern part of the country on Tuesday after insurgents blew up the local government compound there and fled, the Defence Ministry said.


The seizure of the militant base comes a day after a French national was killed and another was wounded when gunmen opened fire in the diplomatic quarter of the capital Sanaa.

The mountainous al Mahfad area of Abyan province – along with Azzan in the adjacent province of Shabwa – has been the main militant stronghold in Yemen since 2012 when the Yemeni army backed by the United States drove the fighters from towns they had seized during a chaotic national uprising in 2011.

A government offensive now in its second week is the most concerted drive against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in nearly two years. AQAP – viewed by Washington as one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous regional off-shoots – has been blamed for waging deadly attacks against security forces, foreigners, and oil and gas facilities.

World powers have urged Yemen to curb the Islamist insurgency and restore order to prevent threats to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the top global oil exporter. They also want to reduce any risk of Yemen being used as a springboard for attacks on Western targets.

The Yemeni defence ministry’s website confirmed that soldiers and allied tribal militias, known as “popular committees”, had entered al Mahfad, a town of about 30,000-40,000 inhabitants that lies on the main road from Abyan to the eastern province of al Mahra.

'Worry and fear'

A local militia commander, Amin Qassem, later told Reuters by telephone that the government forces had met stiff resistance from the militants in the fight for al Mahfad.

“The army and the popular committee members have completed control of al Mahfad and we are now in the centre of the district. Al Qaeda elements have fled to the mountains, but we will keep going after them,” Qassem said.

Authorities have said dozens of militants of several nationalities have been killed during the latest offensive, which follows a series of air strikes, including by US drones, against insurgent bastions, in which Yemen said some 65 fighters had been killed.

Ali Mansour, an eyewitness of the fighting at al Mahfad, said he was relieved by the army’s arrival.

“The entrance of the Yemeni army to al Mahfad ends a long period of suffering that the residents had been living through while al Qaeda militants were present in the area,” Mansour said by phone. “Their presence meant worry and fear,” he said.

Witnesses said the army had used heavy artillery to push into al Mahfad and said security forces had set up checkpoints on the main road.

The defence ministry said in text messages that the army had captured seven suicide belts, 10 explosive devices and nearly 3,000 rounds of ammunition in al Mahfad.

The fighting is still raging in Shabwa, the other front where the Yemeni army is tackling the insurgents, a local official said.

“We expect the main and decisive battles to be in the areas of Mayfa’a and Azzan,” he said.

Last week a Yemeni official and a tribal source confirmed the killing of the head of the AQAP cell in al Mahfad, where Yemeni authorities said an air strike on April 20 had targeted militant training camps.


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