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Yemen army takes back two cities from Al Qaeda-linked forces

Yemen's Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that the army had driven fighters linked to Al Qaeda out of Zinjibar and Jaar.

By Mohammed MukhashafReuters / June 12, 2012

Yemeni army forces fire a missile towards positions of al Qaeda-linked militants in the southern province of Abyan June 10.

Yemen Defense Ministry/REUTERS

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Aden

The Yemeni army drove al-Qaeda-linked fighters from two of their main strongholds on Tuesday after weeks of fighting, the Defense Ministry said, a major breakthrough for a U.S.-backed offensive meant to secure stability in the wider oil-rich Gulf region.

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Jubilant residents took to the streets of the provincial capital of Zinjibar and the strategic city of Jaar in spontaneous celebrations after militants from Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), who had held the two southern cities for more than a year, fled advancing Yemeni troops.

"I am now speaking from the local government headquarters in Zinjibar," Major General Salem Qatan, commander of the southern region, told Reuters by telephone. "The cities of Zinjibar and Jaar have been completely cleansed," he said.

The recapture of the two cities is the army's biggest victory against the militants in more than a year of political turmoil that has taken the country to the brink of civil war, raised questions about its territorial integrity, and fuelled fears about al Qaeda's presence in a country that is next door to Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.

Ali Saeed Obeid, a military spokesman, told Reuters the fall of Jaar was "an astounding defeat for al Qaeda".

The Defense Ministry said the army, backed by local fighters from popular committees, had entered Jaar on Tuesday morning after heavy fighting that killed at least 20 militants, four soldiers and two civilians. At least 20 Yemeni soldiers were also wounded in the fighting, it said.

Under pressure from Washington to quell the militants, the victory is likely to be seen as evidence that the army - which was seen as split between an old guard loyal to the country's former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and a new guard seen as closer to his successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - is healing its divisions.

The first signs that the militants had been routed came at dawn, when Muslim worshippers heading to prayers noticed that the gunmen who had ruled the city for more than a year had disappeared.

The militants had left behind flyers asking inhabitants to forgive them, asserting that they had not wanted to "cause any harm to Jaar and its inhabitants", residents said.

A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, an affiliate of al Qaeda, confirmed that the army had taken control of the town of more than 100,000 people and said a statement would be issued later.

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