x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Opposition accuses Saleh of allowing Al Qaeda to take control of Yemeni town

Suspected Al Qaeda militants seized control of Radaa broken into its jail and freed more than 200 prisoners, officials and residents say.

SANAA // Suspected Al Qaeda militants seized control of a town south of the Yemeni capital yesterday, broken into its jail and freed more than 200 prisoners, officials and residents said yesterday.

About 250 militants stormed Radaa, according to local officials and witnesses. Three of the freed inmates are suspected Al Qaeda militants and residents said several of the prisoners were given guns and joined the fighters. Medics and residents said one of the militants was wounded.

The capture of Radaa in Baydah province, 160 kilometres south of Sanaa, demonstrates the growing strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen as it takes advantage of the weakness of a central government.

The group had previously taken control of a string of towns in the mostly lawless south. But its capture of Radaa is particularly important because it gives the militants a territorial foothold closer than ever before to the capital, where many sleeper cells of the terror network are thought to be located.

The opposition has accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is to step down next month as part of a power-transfer deal, of allowing the militants to overrun Radaa to bolster his claims that he must remain in power to prevent Islamist militants from taking control of the country.

The militants pushed into the town from areas outside the city they captured on Saturday, including the ancient Radaa castle that overlooks the town, and Al Amiriah school and mosque.The militants raised the black Al Qaeda banner atop the mosque.

Residents said that police surrendered easily and gave their arms to the militants.

"What is shocking to us is that we have seen the militants overrunning police stations and the police handed to them their weapons. I have even seen militants with brand new weapons they took over from these police stations as if it was a planned plot," said Hussein Basha, a resident of Radaa.

After the jail attack, clashes erupted between tribesmen and the militants. Mr Basha said the fighting turned Radaa into a ghost town.

"The situation is horrific. The militants are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons and driving police vehicles. Shops, schools and government buildings have been shut down. We are afraid the night might be terrible," Mr Basha said.

Sheikh Mohammed Naser, a tribal leader of Radaa, blamed the army and security troops of plotting to surrender the city.

He said tribal leaders have met and agreed that they would meet the militants' leader, Tariq Al Dhahab, and warn them to leave. Mr Al Dhahab is a relative of the radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki, who was killed in US drone attack last year in Al Jawf province.

"We hold the security and army forces of Saleh responsible for facilitating the access of the militants who are controlling now parts of the town. They did not show any resistance. It is one of the regime tricks," Sheikh Naser said.

Sheikh Naser said Radaa residents appealled to the government to send troops to free the town.

Mr Saleh's critics said the president was trying to confuse the unity government and scare the international community about the threat of Al Qaeda. Mr Saleh's deputy, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, is set to be elected next month to replace Mr Saleh and lead a two-year transition to democracy.

Abdu Al Janadi, spokesman of Mr Saleh's General People's Congress, denied reports that they were working with the militants. "It is groundless to say this was plotted and facilitated by the army and security troops," Mr Janadi said.

The control of Radaa, a city of about 60,000 people, was similar to an attack last year in which militants took control of towns in the Abyan province in Southern Yemen, including Zinjibar, the provincial capital of the province.

The army has been battling the militants to force them out since May.

malqadhi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters