SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni armed forces on Thursday swept al-Qaida fighters out of a district in the country’s south, one of the main goals of the major offensive waged by the military the past two weeks, the Defense Ministry said, amid fears of retaliatory attacks which officials say prompted the closure of the US embassy in the capital as a precaution.
The ministry said that dozens of suspected militants have been killed and captured in the past week as troops and allied tribal fighters seized a string of al-Qaida-held areas along a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of highway snaking through the rugged desert mountains of the south, starting from the Mahfad region.
In the operation in Mahfad, Yemeni forces were reportedly backed by U.S. drone strikes targeting a major al-Qaida base hidden in the remote mountains.
After the base was captured, Yemeni troops found three mass graves inside it, along with a cache of weapons, explosives, documents and food supplies, the army said Thursday. The graves contained bodies of al-Qaida fighters slain in battle and apparently buried in haste, the military said.
The sprawling base was a rare instance of a permanent infrastructure set up by al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch. Built over the past months, it included training grounds, storehouses for weapons and food, and vehicles used by the group.
Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed vowed that the military will persist in routing al-Qaida from their hideouts and “will not give them a chance once again to harm the safety of the citizens.”
Also on Thursday, Yemeni troops seized militant posts in the southern district of Azzan, including the district center, the Defense Ministry said. Gen Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi, from the Yemeni national security, said the people in Azzan gave the troops a warm reception.
In Azzan, troops seized CDs and other documents detailing al-Qaida attack plans for several Yemeni provinces, the ministry said. “Security and stability will return gradually to the district, which has been purged while the chase continues to hunt down the evil elements … in all directions,” the ministry added.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said some militants fled into nearby mountains and that troops were clashing with them sporadically.
Backed by the United States, which has waged a heavy campaign of drone strikes, Yemen has intensified its battle the past two years against the Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch of the terror network is known.
During a 2012 campaign, Yemen’s army drove al-Qaida fighters out of towns and cities they captured in the south. The offensive now is targeting militants in remote mountain hideouts where they have taken refuge and from which they have launched attacks around the country.
The United States temporarily closed its embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday because of recent attacks on Westerners, the State Department said. A day before the closure, gunmen in Sanaa opened fire on three French security guards working with the European Union mission, killing one and wounding another.
Early Thursday, Yemeni officials beefed up security around Western embassies, increasing patrols in the districts where they are located. Armored vehicles were seen stationed near the American mission.
On Wednesday, Yemen’s highest security body announced it had killed the ringleader of the cell that attacked the French security guards and carried out other attacks on Westerners in the capital. Security forces uncovered the cell’s location and when members of the cell left the building Wednesday morning, police attacked them, killing Wael al-Walei, identified as the cell’s leader, the Supreme Security Committee said.