ADEN, Yemen — Yemeni government forces, backed by local fighters, pushed al Qaida-linked militants from two of their primary strongholds in the countrys south Tuesday, marking the governments 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 Qaidas 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 Hadis inauguration, Yemens 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, whos from Abyan, was inaugurated, he declared the battle against the militants to be a "national and religious duty." Yemens armed forces and local tribal fighters, backed by American intelligence, began a campaign against Ansar al Shariah amid fierce fighting thats left scores of casualties on both sides.
Militants acknowledged Tuesday that theyd 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 whove 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 hadnt yet been defeated. Fierce fighting continued in Shaqra, in the east of the province, and there were fears that those whod 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.
"Yemens 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 Yemens 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."
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.