Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

However, some claim that the city was given up willingly, with security forces evacuating the area on Friday.

Residents in Zinjibar were surprised to wake up and see armed, masked men taking positions throughout the city and telling then to return to their homes. The militants entered the city at night while everyone slept peacefully, according to two locals contacted by the Monitor who did not want to be named. There were no sounds of gunfire or explosions to suggest the city was taken by force.

“Saleh has surrendered the Abyan governorate armed militias,” said Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a top military leader who defected from Saleh's regime in March to join the rebels, in a statement read by his spokesman.

Independent Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani also says there were no clashes between AQAP militants and the Yemeni military in Abyan, where Yemen's elite, American-trained counterterrorism units have been stationed for months.

Yemeni forces had been engaging AQAP elements in fierce clashes throughout the south of the country in recent months. The fact that these forces, which were more than capable of repelling an AQAP advance, were pulled out of the area or not used was uncharacteristic of recent campaigns against militants, according to Mr. Iryani.

Protesters vow to remain peaceful

Just hours after the alleged AQAP seizure of Zinjibar, security forces stormed the “Freedom Square” camp in Taiz, destroying it, last Sunday 22 May.

Uniformed soldiers stormed the square with bulldozers, setting fire to tents using Molotov cocktails as snipers shot at unarmed demonstrators from surrounding buildings, according to eye witnesses.

More than 40 protesters are estimated to have been killed in the attack.

While Saleh and the Hashid confederation continue to battle in the streets of Sanaa, the Bakil confederation in the remote Nahm district, 30 miles northeast of Sanaa, have seized military bases from Saleh loyalists. The Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations are the two largest in the country, and their armed resistance to Saleh's regime is leading the country down the path to full-blown civil war.

But in spite of the violence, protesters have vowed to remain in the streets and to remain peaceful.

“As his world falls apart before him, we hope that the peaceful revolution will be the factor in this uprising that finally brings him [Saleh] down,” says Jamal Nasser, spokesman for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, Yemen’s largest protest organization.

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