x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Yemenis fearful as US attacks on Al Qaeda grow

Multiple checkpoints in capital as well as more tanks and soldiers have residents worried war with Al Qaeda is spilling into capital. Hakim Almasmari reports from Sanaa

A soldier mans an anti-aircraft machine gun on a military vehicle during a patrol in Sanaa yesterday.
A soldier mans an anti-aircraft machine gun on a military vehicle during a patrol in Sanaa yesterday.

SANAA // Increased government checkpoints turned the streets of the Yemeni capital into an obstacle course yesterday, dampening the start of Eid Al Fitr celebrations and angering residents worried that escalating US drone strikes against alleged Al Qaeda members are destabilising the country.

The stepped-up drone strikes left more dead yesterday, as four Al Qaeda militants and two civilians were killed when the car in which they were travelling in the province of Mareb, about 175 kilometres east of the capital, was hit by a missile and incinerated, Yemeni security officials said.

It was the sixth US drone attack in the past 10 days and raised to at least 29 the number of alleged militants killed since the escalation began.

Back in Sanaa, there were worries that the multiple checkpoints, as well as tanks and soldiers surrounding government buildings and foreign embassies, were signals that the war with Al Qaeda in the countryside was spilling over into the capital. Those concerns were reinforced when an interior ministry official said earlier this week that some Al Qaeda operatives had already entered the city.

Marwin Sabri, a father of four children, warned that Yemen could buckle under the weight of the drive by the US and its Yemeni government allies to hunt down members of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).

"Yemen is weak and foreign powers like the US will benefit from that even if it means damaging the country," said Mr Sabri, facing an immediate quandary yesterday. "It's Eid and I want to take my children out to play, but at the same time I don't want them to see the weapons everywhere and anger in the streets."

An atmosphere of siege has set in on the capital, after staff at the US and British embassies were evacuated following reports of a threatened attack that prompted Washington to temporarily close 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.

The closures were reportedly triggered by the interception of a secret message between Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri and Nasser Al Wahishi, the leader of Aqap, about plans for a major attack. For their part, Yemeni authorities said on Wednesday that they had uncovered Al Qaeda plots to target foreign embassies and international shipping lanes in the Red Sea. Some of those allegations, issued by government spokesmen, were later denied by the state news agency, reinforcing recent suggestions that the drone war is eroding the credibility of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The US has given US$150 million (Dh550m) to Yemen in recent years, most of it to fund training by US special forces for Yemen's counter-terrorism units. The focus of Yemeni-US cooperation is a joint command centre in Yemen, where officials from both countries evaluate intelligence and choose how and when to launch drone strikes against alleged Al Qaeda operatives.

Growing jittery about the domestic consequences of the close Yemeni-US cooperation in the escalating drone war, government officials confirmed that two of those killed in yesterday's attack were civilians. One of the officials acknowledged that this was not unusual.

"It has become common that civilians are killed when drones target suspected Al Qaeda fighters in Mareb," said a senior security official in Mareb who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That is why the names of those killed in strikes are rarely released. It's because the government sometimes does not know who is killed."

The stepped-up drone operations have revived a debate here about their legality and aim.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman said yesterday that the joint US-Yemeni drone operations breached international law. "They are degrading to all Yemenis and a clear human rights violation," Ms Karman said.

AbdulSalam Mohammed, president of the Abaad Research Centre, said the Obama administration's assessment of Aqap's strength and the latest upswing in drone attacks is driven by an ulterior motive.

"Al Qaeda today is not the powerful network of yesterday and they have been weakened to a great extent," Mr Mohammed said.

"We believe the US is exaggerating the Al Qaeda file to strengthen its foreign policy in the region."


* With additional reporting by Associated Press

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