Al-Qaida raids on Yemen army bases leave more than 100 soldiers dead
Associated Press in Sana’a – guardian.co.uk
Surprise attack in southern Abyan province is latest assault by militants emboldened by political turmoil in Yemen.
Al-Qaida militants have launched a surprise attack on military bases in south Yemen, killing 107 soldiers and capturing heavy weapons that were later used to kill more troops, officials have said.
At least 32 of the militants were killed in the fighting, which happened in Abyan province, and scores from both sides were wounded.
Medical officials in the area confirmed the death toll. They said the poor services in local hospitals accounted for the deaths of many soldiers who had suffered serious wounds but could have survived had they been given better medical care.
The death toll among the troops is believed to be the highest on record in battles fought by the army against al-Qaida militants, who have been emboldened by more than a year of political turmoil in the impoverished Arab nation.
The attack appeared to be al-Qaida’s response to a pledge by Yemen’s newly inaugurated president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to fight the Yemeni branch of the terror network.
The scale of Sunday’s attack points to the militants’ combat readiness as they launch more and more attacks in a region that the US considers a key battleground in the war on al-Qaida.
The militants also took 55 troops hostage during the attack just outside Abyan’s provincial capital, Zinjibar, military officials said.
The captives were paraded through the streets of Jaar, a nearby town that has been under al-Qaida’s control for nearly a year, late on Sunday. Militants seized control of Zinjibar in May and Jaar the previous month as security officials focused on putting down a rebellion against the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh stepped down last month in a US-backed power transfer deal that Washington hoped would allow Yemen’s new leaders to step up action against al-Qaida, but the fighting highlights the difficulties faced by Hadi in combating the militants and restoring state authority in the lawless south.
The military officials said the militants were able to seize armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets from the stores of an army base they attacked. Some heavy weapons were later used against the troops, causing most of the casualties.
A defence ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting had begun when militants detonated booby-trapped vehicles at an army base in the region of Koud, near Zinjibar.
The wording of the statement suggested the base had been occupied by the militants before army forces regrouped and took it back. The fighting lasted the whole day, only stopping at sunset.
During a meeting with leaders of Yemen’s political parties, Hadi announced that fighting al-Qaida and restoring security in the impoverished Arab nation were among his top priorities.
During more than 30 years in power, Saleh tolerated radical Islamic groups as part of a delicate balancing act that kept threats to his authority in the fractured nation at bay.
There has been a surge in attacks blamed on al-Qaida since Hadi’s inauguration.
Sunday’s fighting followed the dismissal last week by Hadi’s government of the military commander of the southern region, to which Abyan belongs, along with other security officials from the province.