SANAA // Militants have taken over the town of Rowdah in the Shabwa province without a fight, posing a potential threat to the country's oil and natural gas reserves, witnesses said.
At least 60 members of the Ansaar Al Sharia militant group entered Shabwa, 458 kilometres south-east of the capital, on Tuesday night from the neighbouring Abyan province, residents in Rowdah said. The group is suspected of having strong links with Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.
Rowdah is about eight kilometres from major gas pipelines and is a main transit point for the gas and oil being piped between northern Yemen and the southern port area of Balhaf.
Though Rowdah is a small town, only 15 square kilometres, its fall into the hands of militants could cause catastrophic damage to the Yemeni economy, Mohammed Jubran, an economic professor at Sanaa University, said yesterday.
"More than 50 per cent of Yemen's oil wealth is connected to Shabwa, and if militants are able to control Rowdah town, they will surely put an end to all the oil/gas output in the country," Mr Jubran said.
"This is a setback for all the Yemeni people, and the government in return is doing nothing to stop it."
A security official in Shabwa said yesterday that "the government will send reinforcements to the area to ensure that militants do not take control. They will be forced to leave".
But some locals fear the government would let the militants continue to control the town.
"The police know that militants are in the town. Instead of imprisoning them, most security forces left the town early Wednesday morning," said Khaldoon Musalim, a resident of Rowdah.
Yemen's oil reserves and production are located in five main areas: Jannah, Ma'rib, Jawf, Masila and Shabwa. Though large quantities of natural gas are found in Mareb, the pipelines are linked in Shabwa.
Ali Abdul Jabbar, director of the Sanaa-based Dar Ashraf Research Centre, said: "Whoever controls Shabwa basically controls the oil and gas wealth of the country.
"If no action takes place immediately, all major foreign investments could leave the country and Yemen will then be on the doorsteps of a long economic crisis."
In Shabwa's neighbouring province of Abyan, government forces have been fighting suspected Al Qaeda militants since late May after the province's capital city of Zinjibar fell to the militants.
On Tuesday, Yemeni officials said four soldiers and six militants were killed in clashes in Abyan. Another 12 gunmen and 15 security personnel were injured in those clashes, an official said.
Yesterday government airstrikes east of Zinjibar, targeting a suspected Al Qaeda hideout, killed three people, More than 400 people have been killed in the ongoing clashes in Abyan.