Yemeni army, tribes in offensive on militants


Yemeni forces backed by armed tribesmen have launched an offensive to retake Zinjibar, capital of southern Abyan province, officials said on Sunday, after months of fighting with Islamist militants who seized the capital and another city.
Dozens have been killed and some 54,000 civilians have fled Abyan, which has descended into daily bloodshed as the army faces a rising challenge from militants the government says have ties to al Qaeda.
After weeks of pleas for support from a besieged military brigade near Zinjibar, the government sent the first reinforcements on Saturday, aiming to flush militants out of the seaside city. Zinjibar lies east of the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
“The head of the Defence Ministry sent reinforcements including tanks, rocket launchers and 500 extra soldiers,” a local official said. “These forces began attacking (the city) backed by heavy tank shelling and rocket attacks from naval ships in order to liberate the 25th Brigade just outside Zinjibar and under siege for over a month.”
While unrest mounts in Abyan, mass protests demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office have entered their sixth month, paralysing several cities and pushing the country into political limbo. Saleh is convalescing in Riyadh after being injured by a bomb blast on his presidential compound.
The United States and oil giant Saudi Arabia are keen to stem the chaos in Yemen, fearing the growing power vacuum gives extra room to al Qaeda’s regional wing. Both countries have been targets of failed attacks by al Qaeda, organised in Yemen.
Tribesmen who joined the weekend offensive said they had sent about 450 men to Zinjibar. They had begun to plan attacks on the militants last week, saying the army had been ineffective.
Army ambulances screeched through the city on Sunday, filled with dozens of wounded people, residents told Reuters by telephone.
Some 20 militants were killed and dozens on both sides were injured on Sunday, according to a local official. He said 35 militants had been killed since the offensive began on Saturday night, but only confirmed the death of two soldiers.
Medical workers in Zinjibar declined to give an estimate of soldiers’ deaths, saying they were too overwhelmed with casualties entering the hospital.
Opposition groups accuse Saleh of letting his forces ease up in the south to stoke fears in the international community that only he stood in the way of a militant takeover.
Militants seized the city of Jaar, also in Abyan province, in March and Zinjibar in May, and later took control of a football stadium outside Zinjibar being used as a makeshift army base.