Yemeni security forces killed at least 28 al Qa'eda militants and captured 17 others in operations backed by air strikes today that foiled imminent suicide attacks, the defence ministry said. Witnesses said several civilians were killed in an attack on an alleged training camp for al Qa'eda, which is believed to have regrouped in Yemen for strikes on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, in the southern province of Abyan.
Raids also took place in the capital Sana'a and the neighbouring district of Arhab, a defence ministry official said in a statement carried by the ministry-linked website 26sep.net. Yemeni security forces targeted a site used as a training camp for al Qa'eda in the Abyan village of al Maajala, some 480 kilometres south-east of Sana'a. "Between 24 and 30 al Qa'eda militants, including foreigners, were killed while training," the official said.
But witnesses in al Maajala said about 50 people were killed in the attack, including an unknown number of civilians in the district which was targeted by air raids. About 12 jet fighters took part in the raid which hit the civilian neighbourhood by mistake, a local official in Abyan said, requesting anonymity. The region of Abyan, part of the former South Yemen republic, has over the past years become a regrouping base for Islamist militants, including Arab veterans of the 1980s war in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation.
The ministry official said Yemeni security forces, supported by aircraft, also attacked several al Qa'eda targets in Arhab, where a cell was found preparing suicide attacks on Yemeni and foreign interests. Four more militants were killed and four others arrested in Arhab, he said in a later statement. The defence ministry, meanwhile, said that 13 militants were captured in raids in the capital. A Yemeni security official who asked not to be named said that authorities "were expecting a large operation by al Qa'eda in Sana'a," but he did not elaborate.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden and has been the scene of several attacks claimed by the group on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil installations. The group has suffered setbacks amid US pressure on Sana'a to crack down but its presence threatens to turn Yemen into a base for training and plotting attacks, a top US counterterrorism official said in September.
The Saudi branch of al Qa'eda is believed to have joined forces with militants in Yemen under the banner of al Qa'eda on the Arabian Peninsula with the aim of launching attacks in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi member of the group blew himself up at an arm's length from the kingdom's deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in August after having evaded security measures by claiming he wanted to repent.
The rugged terrain of Yemen, which stretches over 529,000 square kilometres, provides ideal cover for armed groups. * AFP