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Islamist militants took over the southern coastal city of Zinjibar (see map) this weekend, bolstering claims that Yemen's unrest, which borders on civil war, is leaving a vacuum that is allowing militants to gain strength. The clashes with the government have so far been concentrated in the north, around Sanaa.
About 300 militants took over the city Sunday after government forces stationed there left to boost security elsewhere. Several news outlets reported that the men are Al Qaeda fighters, possibly from the local franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, the Wall Street Journal reports that although Abyan Province is an AQAP stronghold, local residents say the men are part of Ansar al-Sharia. That group is made up of local tribesman who aim to sent up a fundamentalists Islamic state in the country's south, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
Combating AQAP and other militant groups in Yemen has been the focal point of the US-Yemen relationship, which is based mostly on cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. The takeover in Zinjibar is likely to heighten US concerns that militant groups in the country will take advantage of the chaos to build their strength and launch more international attacks.
AQAP has been responsible for several attempted attacks on US soil, most recently the so-called "underwear bomber" who attempted to bring down a plane on Christmas in 2009.
The Los Angeles Times reports that members of the opposition are blaming President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the Zinjibar takeover. Government troops have been withdrawn from the south in large numbers since Yemen's protests began in order to help President Saleh keep a hold on Sanaa. The region has a strong separatist movement and fought a civil war with the north in 1994.
Some opposition leaders even accused Saleh of intentionally allowing the Islamist takeover of the city to bolster his grip on power – he has long argued, particularly to the US, that without him at the head of Yemen's government, the country would be taken over by militants, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Telegraph notes that although Saleh has consistently argued that he is a stalwart anti-Al Qaeda presence, he has also built alliances with political and tribal groups with ties to jihadis. Some observers suggested to the Telegraph that the militant takeover of Zinjibar was led by Khalid Abdul Nabi, an Islamist militant with links to Saleh.
AQAP's strength has grown in Abyan Province. Government forces clashed with militants in August 2010, when government troops tried to push them out of a stonghold a few months after AQAP raided an ammunition store elsewhere in the province. According to the Telegraph, AQAP's growing strength is partially due to an unlikely alliance with the mostly secular southern secessionists.
Also this weekend, progovernment forces violently broke up a sit-in in the southern city of Taiz (see map), killing at least 20 protesters, Agence France-Presse reports. The Taiz sit-in has been ongoing for four months and only ended when the forces burned the protest camp's tents and began firing on the demonstrators. Clashes began Sunday night when protesters gathered at a local police station to demand the release of a prisoner.
While the situation in the south has deteriorated, a tentative, temporary truce has been reached in Sanaa between forces loyal to Saleh, opposition fighters, and tribesmen, Agence France-Presse reports. Fighting there escalated in the past week as thousands of armed tribesmen came to the capital city.