Yemeni officials report al-Qaida militants killed at least 20 soldiers in a raid Monday on a military base in the country's south. Some reports describe the attack as retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that apparently killed a top al-Qaida leader involved in the bombing of a U.S. Navy warship in 2000.
It was just the latest in a series of al-Qaida attacks on Yemeni government troops in and near Abyan province in recent months.
Al-Qaida militants reportedly attacked the army base from both land and sea, causing many casualties.
Reuters news agency reported that a spokesman for the group claims to have captured 28 soldiers and a tank in the predawn attack. A similar raid on another Yemeni military outpost in March killed about 100 government soldiers.
The assault came less than a day after Yemeni officials said an air strike in southern Yemen had killed al-Qaida militant Fahd al-Quso, accused of involvement in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole at the port of Aden. Quso was on the "most wanted" list of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Al-Qaida forces took control of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, in May last year during the popular uprising against then-President Ali Abdallah Saleh. The group, known as Ansar al Shariah, set up a self-styled Islamic emirate in parts of the region.
Arab satellite channels recently broadcast a message by Ansar al Shariah urging government soldiers to surrender to the group to receive a “pardon.” A photo published about ten days ago purportedly shows the head of the group releasing a number of captive soldiers.
However, Stephen Steinbeiser, who heads the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sanaa, does not believe al-Qaida is gaining popularity across the country.
“They haven't been able to really come into the cities, at least as far as we can tell. And, they don't really have a cohesive, attractive message right now. If they can develop one and if they somehow receive funding to actually support it with money, then I think people will find it more attractive, but right now it doesn't seem like they have broad support,” Steinbeiser said.
Steinbeiser also stresses that the new Yemeni government, under the leadership of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been working to overcome many problems that arose during the lengthy popular uprising to oust former president Saleh.
"There is a sense that Hadi is getting stronger, especially with the re-arranging, the shuffling of the army. I am actually kind of impressed by how the transitional government has been able to get on top of things like that. If the army falls apart then al-Qaida can pretty much do whatever it wants, so it's critical to keep the army unified, under control of the government,” Steinbeiser said.
President Hadi recently removed several top former military commanders who are close relatives of former president Saleh, including his son.