News / Middle East

With President Absent, Yemen Battles Islamist Militants

A Yemeni army officer stands at a checkpoint in Sana'a, Yemen, June 9, 2011
A Yemeni army officer stands at a checkpoint in Sana'a, Yemen, June 9, 2011

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Elizabeth Arrott

Yemeni officials say government forces have killed 12 people suspected of links to al-Qaida as they battle to regain territory lost to Islamist militants in the south of the country. This comes as a leading American newspaper says the U.S. has stepped up air attacks on suspected extremists during Yemen's political unrest.

The report of increased U.S. military strikes was welcomed by some in Yemen, who have feared the growing influence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other militant Islamist groups.

The New York Times, quoting unidentified U.S. officials, said Washington resumed the air strikes in recent weeks, fearing Yemen's leadership crisis would allow militants to make headway.

Yemeni journalist and political analyst Nasser Arrabyee says, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an attack last Friday, the timing makes sense, especially in the south.

"It is getting worse there because Abyan, in particular, and Jahar, in more particular, is the stronghold of the jihadists," he said. "And what happens in Zinjibar is they declared it the second Islamic emirate after Jahar. Al-Qaida now is exploiting the unrest in the country - in the whole country, not only in the south. And what is happening now is that they are making some gains."

VOA's Susan Yackee speaks with Robert Powell, Senior Middle East analyst with The Economist intelligence unit, about the situation in Yemen:

Arrabyee argues that now is a good time to strike these forces, whether by the Yemeni government or the United States.

Yemen's defense ministry said Thursday that its forces had killed 12 militants in these southern areas although, in the past, it has overstated its claims as the government tried to prove itself a strong counter-terrorist ally.

Arrabyee says he is inclined to believe the latest report.

"It's difficult to say how many, but it is sure that dozens were killed from both sides," he said. "This is very possible because there was very fierce fighting over the last two days."  

The jihadist offensive comes against a backdrop of anti-government political protests which began four months ago. The calls for President Saleh's ouster turned violent in recent weeks, as tribal opponents of the government and other armed groups joined the fray.  

In the capital, Sana'a, an uneasy truce is holding between forces of the al-Ahmar clan and the government. But pressure continues to build for the interim government to move beyond Saleh's presidency and form a transitional council.

Protester Tareq Saeed was among the demonstrators out in force Thursday.

Saeed rejected reports from Saudi and Yemeni officials that Saleh's condition is improving, saying the demonstrators don't care. He said the most important point is that the president has left the country and "is finished," as he put it. Now, he added, is the time to look to building a new future.  

But the political reforms envisioned by the protesters would seem unattainable as long as al-Qaida and other jihadists continue to expand their influence. U.S. officials have spoken of the imperative of battling the militants.

So far, the success of the reported stepped-up campaign of air strikes is unclear. A U.S. drone attack last month targeted the Yemeni-American al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, but missed, while The New York Times says another U.S. airstrike last Friday killed a mid-level al-Qaida operative in southern Yemen.

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