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Yemen's Saleh cedes Al Qaeda hotbed to militants. Why?

President Saleh, increasingly embattled as civil unrest spreads and tribal leaders intensify their fight, says that Al Qaeda seized the capital of Abyan province. But residents saw no evidence of a fight.

By Jeb BooneContributor / May 31, 2011

Antigovernment protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on May 31.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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Sanaa, Yemen

A fragile cease-fire between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the powerful Hashid tribal confederation was broken early this morning, resulting in the most intense fighting yet in this conflict between tribe and government.

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The fighting comes on the heels of an escalation of violence this weekend, during which at least 40 protesters were killed by Yemeni security forces in the southern city of Taiz. In addition, Mr. Saleh ceded control of Abyan, a southern province known for Al Qaeda militancy, claiming that its capital of Zinjibar had seized the city by force.

But an independent analyst and rebel military general said there was no fighting, suggesting that Saleh had sought to create a diversion to challenges to his authority elsewhere in the country. The president has long been accused of playing up the Al Qaeda threat in order to present himself as indispensable to preserving Yemen's stability and security, particularly in the eyes of the West.

"Saleh has historically exaggerated the threat of Al Qaeda in the hopes of securing money, military assistance, and a blind eye from Western partners,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University.

Indeed, Saleh has stressed time and again in his infamous Friday speeches that, should he be forced to relinquish power, Al Qaeda will sweep in and take over the entire country.

"Those who seek power in Yemen say that if I leave, Al Qaeda will vanish. The opposite is, in fact, true. Should I be forced out, Al Qaeda will complete its control over Marib, Hadramout, Shabwa, Abyan, and Jawf. These governorates will be forced to accept Al Qaeda,” Saleh said in his most recent Friday speech on May 20.

Government: Militants launched pre-dawn attack

More than 300 members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) descended from mountains surrounding Zinjibar, the capital city of Abyan, late Friday night, according to a Yemeni government spokesman. They launched a pre-dawn attack on a local base for security forces late Friday night, before seizing control of the entire city, he said.

Such a show of force would not be unprecedented; in March, militants seized control of Jaar, another city in the Abyan Governorate, after raiding and destroying an ammunition factory, killing hundreds of workers in the process.

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