x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Yemen: protesters slain, militants killed, pipeline blown up

Security forces shoot dead at least 10 people protesting against the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Al Qaeda insurgents blow up a critical pipeline after militants killed in air raid.

SANAA // Security forces shot dead at least 10 people protesting against the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital yesterday as Al Qaeda insurgents blew up a critical pipeline and halted gas exports.

Yemeni officials said the attack on France's Total gas pipeline was in retaliation for the killing of the head of the media department of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in an air raid on militant outposts in Yemen. Officials said 23 other militants were killed in the raid. Another five people are believed to have been killed in Sanaa in fighting between Saleh forces and troops loyal to a tribal chief who opposes Mr Saleh. The government also said a soldier was killed in the clash with the protesters.

In Sanaa, soliders and armed supporters loyal to Mr Saleh killed 10 protesters and wounded 78 others as hundreds of thousands were protesting. Almost 200 suffered from tear gas inhalation, said Dr Mohammed Al Qubati, the coordinator at a makeshift field hospital near Change Square in Sanaa.

"The shooting focused on the head, the neck and the chest. Eleven injuries are in a critical condition and they were all shot on the head," the doctor said.

The clashes erupted on Al Zubairi Street, which marks the dividing line between parts of the capital held by Saleh forces and those held by dissident units under the command of General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar.

"God is great … freedom, the people want to prosecute the mass killer," the protesters chanted.

"We were protesting peacefully and with bare chests, but the family guards and thugs and snipers on rooftops opened fire as we crossed the barricades to Zubairi Street," said Hashim Al Sufi, a protester.

In a statement issued last night, Gen Al Ahmar urged the international community to immediately intervene and stop "massacres of this ignorant killer", referring to Mr Saleh. The statement said the international community should try to remove the troops loyal to Mr Saleh and opposition troops from Sanaa and other cities to locations that are at least 100 kilometres outside those cities.

He also urged the international community to "force him [Saleh] to immediately sign the GCC plan and transfer power from him and his gang to avert Yemen and the region wars and instability this ignorant is plotting."

The death of Ibrahim Al Banna, an Egyptian described by Yemeni officials as high on their wanted list, and 23 other people late on Friday is a fresh blow to AQAP after the killing of Anwar Al Awlaki last month.

The Yemeni defence ministry said its air force targeted militant hideouts in Shabwa province, an attack that residents said also killed the oldest son of the US-born cleric Al Awlaki. The strikes also killed one of Al Awlaki's cousins.

Tribal leaders said that Farhan al Quso also was killed in the attack. He is the brother of Fahd Mohammed al-Quso, a particularly elusive Al Qaeda fugitive who helped plan the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole attack.

But local residents and officials said they believed the aircraft that launched at least three strikes in the area were foreign, flying at high altitude and smaller than the Soviet-made Yemeni air force planes.

"There were planes flying high. I could hear the sounds of their engines but I could not make them out," one witness said. "All of a sudden, the area was shaken by successive explosions." Witnesses said militants removed several mutilated bodies early yesterday as well as an unknown number of injured people from the scene after the raid.

Last month, a US drone killed Al Awlaki, identified by US intelligence as "chief of external operations" for Al Qaeda's Yemen branch and an internet-savvy propagandist for the Islamist cause.

Relatives of Al Awlaki said the cleric's son and cousin were due to be buried at the site of the attack.

Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda captured large swaths of southern Abyan province, including the provincial capital Zinjibar, this year. The Yemeni army last month drove the militants out of Zinjibar, which lies east of a strategic shipping strait through which about three million barrels of oil pass each day.

The destruction yesterday of the Total pipeline, which transports gas from Maarib province to Belhaf port on the Arabian Sea, deals a severe blow to the Yemeni economy, already reeling from months of protests.

The 322km pipeline, which links gasfields in Maarib, east of Sanaa, to a $4.5 billion Total-led liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, was attacked soon after the raids on the AQAP militants.

Total said the pipeline was blown up in two places, stopping the supplies that feed the Belhaf LNG plant. Witnesses said flames were visible from several kilometres away.

The company evacuated nearly half its foreign staff to neighbouring Djibouti, and sent some local and French engineers to start repairing the pipeline. Three South Korean companies also hold stakes in the plant, Yemen's largest industrial project, which opened in 2009.

Yemen's only liquefied natural gas producer, Yemen LNG, warned customers in March of potential supply curtailments as violence spread. Yemen has the capacity to supply up to 6.7 million tonnes of LNG per year. Last year Yemen LNG, the 16th largest seller of the gas, shipped more than half its supplies to Asia, the rest going to the Americas and Europe.

Away from the protests in Sanaa, another part of the city was caught up in fighting again. In the Hassaba area of northern Sanaa, four tribesmen were killed when Saleh forces heavily shelled the house of Sheikh Himiar Al Ahmar, deputy speaker of parliament and brother of Sheikh Sadeq Al Ahmar, whose supporters have fought fierce battles against Saleh forces in June and May. Human rights groups said 16 others were wounded in the shelling, including six civilians. Government officials said one civilian was killed, and blamed Al Ahmar supporters and troops who defected.

Heavy gunfire and huge blasts rocked the north part of the city and smoke was seen billowing from houses in Hasaba and Sufan town near the state television building. The building which accommodates the studios of the privately owned Al Saeeda satellite television was damaged by a shell and broadcasting was disrupted. The television station said the building was set ablaze in an effort to "silence the voice of Al Saeeda".

Sanaa International Airport was closed and flights were either cancelled or diverted to Aden. Flights for Turkish Airlines and Emirates Airlines to Sanaa were cancelled. Passengers spent hours at the airport and then returned home. Domestic flights to Sanaa were also cancelled.

At least 861 people have been killed and 25,000 wounded since mass protests erupted across the country.


* With additional reporting by Reuters