SANAA // A surge in attacks by Al Qaeda in Yemen is fuelling fears that allies of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, are using the militant group to undermine his successor and set the stage for his political comeback.
Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, who succeeded Mr Saleh as president, was elected unchallenged in February to lead a two-year transitional government and reform the military. Mr Saleh has not ruled out standing for the next elections in 2014.
At least 29 suspected Al Qaeda militants were killed yesterday in the third day of battle with the army backed by citizen militias in southern Yemen.
The army fired mortar shells at the militant strongholds at Am Ein village, while the civilian militias clashed with the militants in the city of Lawdar, in Abyan province.
Military officials said Al Qaeda leaders in Lawdar, Emad Al Minshibi and Drabish Ahmed Taher, were killed yesterday. Among the slain militants were Saudi, Pakistani and Somali nationals, according to the defence ministry.
About six militants, including a senior leader, were captured yesterday, said an official with the civilian militias.
Residents have joined the army to push out the rebels, who attacked the town on Monday. They took back a key post yesterday.
The militants are receiving reinforcements and the civilian militias have asked for more guns and ammunition.
Military aircraft launched several strikes against the militants and destroyed two of the tanks they had seized after an attack on a military post on Monday.
Suspected US drones launched four strikes, targeting a vehicle for the militants in Am Ein, said local officials. The officials said yesterday evening strikes killed about 12 militants.
They also destroyed checkpoints set by the militants on the regions surrounding Lawder. About 150 people including at least 124 militants have been were killed in Lawdar since Monday, 250km south-east of Sanaa.
Analysts warn the strength of the Al Qaeda surge poses an unprecedented threat to Yemen.
Faris Al Saqqaf, director of the Sanaa-based Future Studies Centre and an expert on Islamist movements, said it will be difficult for Mr Hadi to implement reforms as he confronts rising militant attacks.
"Al Qaeda is manipulating the political and security vacuum as well as the army division to expand its presence on the ground," said Mr Al Saqqaf.
"Al Qaeda wants to seize as much of regions as it can in order to improve its position in negotiating with the central government as Al Qaeda has already shown interest in negotiation with the government to release its prisoners in return to the release of soldiers in captivity."
Saeed Obaid Al Jemhi, an expert on Al Qaeda, disagreed with the notion that Al Qaeda wanted to negotiate.
Mr Al Jemhi, an author of a book on Al Qaeda in Yemen, said the surge is due to the recruitment of other Islamist militants who were operating independently and merging them all under the name of Ansar Al Sharia, or the Supporters of Islamic law.
"Al Qaeda empowered the leaders of these groups and made them rulers of their regions like the case in Jaar and Zinjibar in Abyan. By recruiting these militants and unifying them under the one command, Al Qaeda has got now a big number of fighters," Mr Al Jemhi said.
"The surge of attacks against the army troops is a result of the good numbers the terrorist organisation has got now as well as the different sorts of weapons it owns now including tanks.
"Now, we see the response to attacks against the militants comes immediately, unlike the past where Al Qaeda used to take several weeks or months to retaliate against attacks and this is a sign of strength ," Mr Al Jemhi said.
Mr Al Jemhi said that by shifting from western and American strategic targets to fighting the government and its troops, Al Qaeda wants to show that "it is a popular group with heavy presence on the ground rather than being individual militants on the run and here lies the danger, which is that Al Qaeda gains popular sympathy and support among the citizens in the regions they control".
Mr Al Jehmi also said the army morale is low.
The militants last year seized Zinjibar and Jaar, and opposition groups and local citizens accused troops loyal to Mr Saleh of letting the militants control the city and swathes of land in the south to send a message to the West that Al Qaeda would take control if the Saleh regime fell.
Mr Hadi was elected unopposed in February to replace Mr Saleh under a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal in which Mr Saleh handed over power in return for immunity from prosecution.
"There is a mutual interest between the regime of Mr Saleh and the militants for they both seek to halt the political transition," said Mr Al Saqqaf.
"Saleh does not want the army restructuring for it means the removal of his relatives from their key position and the existence of a professional and a unified army is against the interest of Al Qaeda and here their interests meet."
"Keeping the well-trained anti-terrorism forces in Sanaa while they should be in Abyan enhances perception that there is facilitation for the militants' operations," said Mr Al Saqqaf.