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Yemeni Soldiers Killed in Offensive Against Suspected al-Qaida Members

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Yemen's government says four of its soldiers have been killed in a continuing offensive against suspected members of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  The government has laid siege to a southern town in a bid to capture the suspects, thought to number in the dozens.

The offensive is among the most sustained against the militants, who apparently retain control of at least parts of the southern town of Howta.

Thousands of people were able to flee before the attack got under way Monday, but the government alleges some remain and are being used by militants as human shields.

The town is in the southern province of Shabwa, where American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding.  Government officials say they do not think the cleric, linked to several terrorist attacks and on a U.S. kill or capture list, is among those in Howta.

There have been reports the offensive began in retaliation for a militant attack on a natural gas pipeline in Shabwa, but the area is for the most part off limits to reporters and the reports could not be confirmed.

The campaign coincides with a visit Monday by White House counterterrorism advisor John Brenner.  The United States has stepped up its support of the Yemeni government in its fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, since it was linked to a failed attempt to blow up an American airplane late last year.    

Stephen Steinbeiser is the director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sana'a. "I will be surprised if the timing was deliberately set for the days that the official was actually in the country.  Normally these things happen a day or two before or after, but it is usually not to the advantage of an American officials to come into Yemen when there are actual open conflicts going on in the country," he said.

In the past, witnesses to U.S.-backed anti-militant attacks say the strikes have also killed civilians.

The fight against al-Qaida is just one of several in which Yemeni President Ali Abudullah Saleh is engaging.  Shabwa is also home to the secessionist Southern movement.   And in the north, the government has been fighting rebels on and off for several years.  Vast areas of the country are largely beyond government control.  

Political analyst Steinbeiser says the general discontent is symptomatic of the major economic and social problems in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world.

"Until the people begin to feel calmer and begin to feel there is more stabilization, then I think groups like al Qaida will continue to have great influence, especially among the youth," he said.

Steinbeiser says the government would do better to broaden the scope of its anti-terrorism campaign to include improving the economy and the education system.

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