Yemen's weakened military suffers setback against Islamist militants

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2012 

SANAA, Yemen — As the death toll from fighting between Yemeni troops and al Qaida-linked militants in southern Abyan province crossed 100, the new Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, vowed Monday to redouble efforts to combat the growing insurgency.

Military leaders met Monday in Sanaa, the capital, a day after the militants mounted a two-front assault on an army base outside the provincial capital of Zinjibar, seizing heavy artillery and using government weapons to target Yemeni forces.

"Yemen is engaged in fighting against al Qaida terrorist elements and all extremist armed groups," Hadi said in a phone call with the European Union foreign affairs head, Catherine Ashton, according to state media.

Hadi, who took office last month after protests forced the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally on counterterrorism, declared restoring order and combating the southern-based militants a top priority. Despite ostensible backing from the bulk of Yemen's political, military and tribal leaders, Hadi's efforts are hampered by an army that's been weakened by anti-Saleh defections and distracted by clashes in the capital and elsewhere.

The assault in Zinjibar on Sunday marked the deadliest day in a nearly yearlong battle between government forces and the fighters in Abyan. More than 100 soldiers and 32 militants were killed in the fighting, while dozens of Yemeni troops were taken captive and reportedly paraded through the militant-held town of Ja'ar on Monday.

Since slipping out of government control last spring during the uprising against Saleh, the towns of Ja'ar and Zinjibar have been under the control of militants calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia, or the supporters of Islamic law. Believed to be linked to the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, they've been described by displaced civilians as made up of a mix of Yemeni fighters and foreign militants.

The U.S. government has described AQAP as among the most threatening branches of the global terrorist organization and has backed Hadi, casting him as a stabilizing force.

"We will continue to provide security and counterterrorism support to counter the immediate threats of violent extremism, as well as to deliver humanitarian, economic and technical support," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

The United States provided tens of millions of dollars annually in aid to Saleh's government, which was intended to help it battle Islamist militants. U.S. officials have signaled that Washington will continue to send aid to Yemen during the post-Saleh transitional period, during which Hadi's government is expected to make democratic reforms.

The continuing violence has created an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis, forcing tens of thousands of civilians from their homes.

Tensions between pro-Saleh troops and those under the command of dissident Gen. Ali Mohsen remain high, with members of the Central Security Forces, a unit headed by the former president's nephew, briefly clashing with forces loyal to the powerful defector last week in the capital.

And many arms of the military — most notably the Yemeni air force — continue to be wracked by mutinies targeting leaders whom demonstrators see as corrupt holdovers from the previous regime.

Analysts say that the government's battle in Abyan is likely to be difficult because of the military's fractiousness and the Islamists' resilience, portending a long fight.

"Hadi has decided take the battle to al Qaida a bit prematurely," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. "Yemen can't just go into Abyan and take back the area with a few troops. It's going to take a unified approach from the military."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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