ZINJIBAR, Yemen — Soldiers celebrated Wednesday and civilians appeared to eager welcome the return of government control a day after the Yemeni military and its tribal forces allies pushed al Qaida-linked militants out of the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which the militants had held for more than a year.
Military officers and local civilians said the government victory was the result of an unprecedented assault Tuesday morning that drove the militants from their positions. By Wednesday morning, government forces appeared to have consolidated control over Zinjibar and the town of Jaar, which the militants also had controlled for more than a year, and an odd calm appeared to have taken hold in the former war zone. In the shadow of bombed-out buildings, farmers tended to their fields. In Jaar, soldiers ran checkpoints in the shadow of walls still dotted with pro-al Qaida graffiti.
Senior Yemeni government officials toured both towns, taking in the damage from the fighting while reinforcing the reality of the victory. But military officers stressed that the fight wasnt over, noting that most of the militants had fled, heading east to strongholds in the coastal town of Shaqra and the neighboring province of Shabwa.
We have beaten them here, but the fight continues elsewhere, Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ahmed said, speaking from the top of Mount Khanfar, a craggy peak towering over Jaar that once served as one of the militants primary bases in the town, as he met with scores of jubilant soldiers. Wherever they are, we will find them.
Al Qaida-linked militants fighting under the banner of Ansar al Shariah first took over Jaar in March of last year, while Yemens central government was distracted by anti-government protests that eventually ended former President Ali Abdullah Salehs more than three-decade rule. The militants quickly expanded their control to much of the rest of the province of Abyan, facing little resistance from military forces, residents said.
That began to change after the inauguration in February of Salehs successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a native of Abyan province who declared the battle against Ansar al Shariah to be a top priority. Yemeni forces, backed by local tribesmen and American intelligence, launched what government officials said would be a decisive offensive against the militants. U.S. aircraft conducted airstrikes on key Ansar positions.
Retreating militants had mined some of the roads that lead to Zinjibar, but some of the tens of thousands of civilians whod been displaced by the fighting began to trickle in Wednesday anyway. Still, the Yemeni government faces enormous challenges in its efforts to restore normality to the area.
Basic services such as electricity and water are all but absent, residents complain, and the long months of fighting have done more than $2.5 billion in damages to the provinces buildings. A delay in repairing the damage could lead to a return of conflict in the province, where separatist sentiments already run high. Even many of the tribal fighters who joined in the battle against Ansar al Shariah harbor a deep distrust of the central government, in some cases openly advocating for the secession of South Yemen, which was an independent state until 1990.
In the wake of the governments victory, however, such challenges at least for a moment were pushed out of the minds of many of the areas residents, who said they were just hopeful that calm would return.
The horrors of the past year were unthinkable, said Talha al Ahmadi, a member of Zinjibars local council, who was beaming even as she gazed at the wreckage of the building that once housed the provincial governments offices. The suffering isnt over, but for now, Im incredible happy as a resident of this city, and as a citizen of this country.
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.