By Ahmed Al-Haj Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen — Government troops backed by warplanes and heavy artillery pounded al-Qaida positions in southern Yemen on Sunday, killing at least 30 militants, officials said.
The army launched its assault on the al-Hurur region of Abyan province at dawn Sunday, pushing out al-Qaida-linked fighters who have controlled the area since taking it over last year. Abdullah Ahmed, who lives in the area, said the militants fled by foot after government soldiers destroyed nearly a dozen tanks and vehicles mounted with rocket launchers seized by the militants last year and kept in al-Hurur.
The attack was part of the Yemeni military’s broader campaign against al-Qaida-linked fighters. The militants have seized towns and territory across southern Yemen over the past year, taking advantage of a security vacuum linked to the country’s political turmoil that pushed longtime authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
Saleh’s successor and former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took office in February in a U.S.-backed power transfer deal. He has since ramped up the fight against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, which the U.S. says is one of the group’s most active.
The White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, met with Hadi on Sunday in the capital, Sanaa. Hadi’s office said in a statement that the Yemeni leader briefed Brennan on the army’s progress against al-Qaida in the south.
Brennan, who also met with the head of Yemen’s military, reiterated Washington’s strong commitment to Hadi’s efforts to stabilize the country, and said the Yemeni leader is making “historical decisions during these critical times in modern day Yemen,” according to a statement released by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.
Driving the militants out of the area of al-Hurur positions the army just outside the city of Jaar, where al-Qaida has held sway since March 2011. If the military can reclaim Jaar, it will have surrounded the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which also is currently under the control of al-Qaida.
The military has claimed control in recent weeks of some of the outlying areas of Zinjibar, but militants remain firmly entrenched in the heart of the city.
The army also battled militants Sunday around Zinjibar and in the town of al-Code in fighting that left at least 12 government troops dead, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
The U.S. is particularly concerned about the activities of al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemen was the launching pad for two foiled al-Qaida attacks on U.S. territory: the Christmas 2009 attempt to down an American airliner over Detroit with an underwear bomb and the sending of printer cartridges packed with explosives to Chicago-area synagogues in 2010.
Last week, The Associated Press disclosed that the CIA thwarted yet another plot by AQAP to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb which could have been undetectable by conventional airport scanners.
AQAP released a guide for would-be fighters written by U.S. national Samir Khan before his death in an American missile strike last year that also killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida cleric.
The 16-page English-language guide, reported by SITE Intelligence Group on Sunday, advised potential fighters about how to remain physically and psychologically healthy during long operations, noting the “recent opening of Abyan” and saying the group is in a “state of expansion” there.
“It is not about just rushing to the enemy bases and attempting to take them over, but it is about what to do in the long run and how to build upon that,” the guide says.
Associated Press Aya Batrawy contributed from Cairo.