SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s army launched an offensive against al Qaida-linked militants in central Bayda province on Monday after negotiations failed to win the militants’ peaceful surrender and the release of three Western hostages.
Moving in from the northwest, Yemeni troops confronted the militants in the town of Manasah, shelling what was once considered a safe haven for al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the local al Qaida branch is known. But while Yemeni officials claimed tentative progress, the militants fought back, killing at least 11 soldiers after detonating a car bomb next to a military checkpoint in the town of Rada.
Residents said that government reinforcements continued to flow toward the frontlines Monday night.
The Yemeni government suspects that the militants are holding three Western hostages – two Finns and an Austrian – whose whereabouts have been unknown since they were captured late last year. Yemeni security sources claim the hostages were sold to AQAP after they were seized by gunmen in central Sanaa in December. But the militants have denied that the foreigners are in their custody, and the Finnish Foreign Ministry has denied that the offensive is related to the hostages.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters under the leadership of Sheik Tareq al Dahab, a local tribal leader, took control of Rada, a major town in the province, a year ago, then agreed to a negotiated withdrawal. But as Yemeni troops, backed by local fighters, pushed militants from neighboring Abyan province last spring, parts of Bayda emerged as militant strongholds.
Residents claim that they’ve seen foreign fighters and that the militants are running training camps in their bases in the province. And while an apparent family feud saw Tareq al Dahab meet his end at the hands of a half-brother, his brothers Abdul Raof, Nabil and Qaid have led the fight since the militant leader’s death. Yemeni officials have characterized the three as “wanted men,” and the brothers have been targeted in a number of alleged American airstrikes that have taken place in the province.
While the Yemeni government permits them, the strikes – carried out by unmanned drones – are deeply controversial in Yemen. Alleged American airstrikes in Bayda reportedly have led to a number of civilian casualties, most notoriously in September, when a botched strike hit a minibus carrying civilians, killing 12, including three children.
Sources in the province claim public anger over the strikes has led many local tribesmen to refuse to cooperate with the military’s offensive, a sharp contrast to last year’s spring offensive in Abyan, where the backing of local tribal fighters played an instrumental role in forcing the militants to abandon towns that had been under their control for more than a year.
“Some tribesmen are fighting the army even more than al Qaida is,” said a currently Sanaa-based civilian from Rada, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “People are angry about drone strikes and many condemn this (offensive) as foreign intervention. Al Qaida has really been able to build public sympathy.”
At the end of the first day of the offensive, analysts said, it was far too soon to forecast the results of what could prove to be an extensive military operation. Looking forward, they stressed that, as with similar offensives elsewhere in the country, the Yemeni armed forces’ ability to maintain any gains ultimately will prove as significant as any progress made in the coming days.
“Its unclear how long this offensive will last; as of now it appears to be targeted at Manasah, which has developed into an al Qaida stronghold as of late,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a Yemen analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The question is whether the Yemeni army will be able to hold any gains it makes – and so far, it hasn’t shown real proof that it can do so.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron