Coalition in new assault on Al Qaeda in Yemen
Aden // Yemeni fighters backed by the Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive on Saturday to retake the capital of Abyan province from Al Qaeda as ground and naval forces continue to build up near the extremists’ stronghold of Mukalla.
Forces loyal to the Yemeni government, including the popular committees of Abyan, advanced on the provincial capital of Zinjibar after fighting militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Aqap, in the town of Al Khud, about five kilometres to the south. They were backed by coalition Apache attack helicopters, a military source in Aden said.
“The military campaign, which is supported by military vehicles and air strikes, succeeded in entering parts of Zinjibar district after fierce clashes with Aqap fighters left dozens of Aqap killed and others injured,” the source said.
The offensive in Abyan and neighbouring Lahj province is part of the second stage of an operation against Aqap in southern Yemen, after the government and coalition forces cleared the militants from Al Mansoura district in Aden in late March.
Last week government forces and southern resistance fighters, backed by UAE forces and armoured vehicles, liberated the capital of Lahj province from extremists.
Al Qaeda and rival militants affiliated with ISIL have used the chaos of the war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to Yemen’s former president on one side and Yemeni forces backed by the coalition on the other, to gain control of swathes of territory along the southern coast, including Mukalla, a port city of half a million people.
Aqap is Al Qaeda’s most formidable branch, and has shown the ability to target the West. It had come under steady pressure until the Houthis took territory from the government and US counter-terrorism personnel were forced to pull out of Yemen altogether a year ago.
Despite drone strikes that have killed Aqap’s leader and other senior figures since then, US officials have grown increasingly concerned about the group’s expanding territorial control and is pressing the coalition to find a political solution with the Houthis and take on Al Qaeda extremists.
The conflict in Yemen was a key issue at a GCC-US summit in Riyadh on Thursday and in talks between US president Barack Obama and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
UAE officials have asked the US military for assistance with the operations against Aqap that are led by Emirati forces, Reuters reported last week, citing American officials.
While Zinjibar is just 50 kilometres east of Aden, where the internationally recognised government is based, Mukalla is almost 800km away in Hadramawt province, closer to the Omani border than it is to Aden. The city is Aqap’s main stronghold, and in the year the group has the city has consolidated its control in ways similar to ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
Over the past week, Emirati armoured vehicles and hundreds of Yemeni forces have massed at a military base under government control near Mukalla, according to a journalist based in the city.
There are reportedly 1,000 fighters based in Mukalla. Aqap abolished taxes on local residents but has been taxing goods coming into the port, as well as ship traffic. The group also looted US$100 million (Dh367m) from the central bank and extorted $1.4m from the national oil company. Reuters reported they have earned $2m a day. They have also exploited the sense of marginalisation among local Yemenis to gain support, according to the report.
These developments along with US pressure and a potential end to the fighting with Houthi rebels have appeared to galvanise the coalition to launch the offensive against Aqap.
“The coalition-led forces arrived near Mukalla and Yemeni soldiers are being trained by Emirates forces there, and the battleships of the Saudi-led coalition have already taken control of Mukalla port last month,” the journalist said.
The militants have begun to prepare for the impending offensive. Aqap fighters have amassed in Mukalla district and have set up checkpoints in the city, stopping and questioning people and vehicles they deem suspicious, the journalist said.
“The Aqap fighters took over military camps in Mukalla and they can fight the coalition troops using heavy weapons they captured, so I expect fierce clashes will break out.”
Fadhl Al Rabie, a political analyst and head of the Madar Strategic Studies Centre in Aden, said the Saudi-led coalition had to take on Aqap militants in their stronghold to prevent them from advancing in new areas.
“The Aqap fighters are fiercer than the Houthis and they will not surrender to the Saudi-led or Yemeni troops, so the coalition forces will take time to plan very well for this step,” he said.
Taimur Khan reported from Abu Dhabi
Updated: April 23, 2016 04:00 AM