Fawaz al-Haidari, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

Yemen battles militants in south as US warns of Qaeda threat

Islamic extremists killed three Yemeni soldiers and wounded five in new fighting for the southern city of Zinjibar on Tuesday, as the US warned of a growing Al-Qaeda threat in the restive Arab nation.

"We have received the bodies of three dead soldiers," said a medical official at Aden's military hospital, adding that five others were wounded.

A military official confirmed the casualty toll, adding that the fighting was for control of parts of Zinjibar which are still held by the Al-Qaeda linked militants.

Newly appointed CIA director David Petraeus said Tuesday that, even as Al-Qaeda faces unprecedented pressure elsewhere, its Yemen-based branch "has emerged as the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad," benefiting from turmoil in the impoverished Arab nation.

Since May, Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has pushed back Yemeni government forces in the south and political upheaval has "helped AQAP co-opt local tribes and extend its influence," he told lawmakers.

The Yemeni government announced on Saturday that troops had liberated Zinjibar from the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic Law) militants who overran it in May.

But military officials later told AFP that parts of the city remained in militant hands and witnesses said that dozens more militants arrived in Zinjibar from the nearby town of Jaar on Monday.

The army carried out several air raids in various districts across Zinjibar on Tuesday, leaving "casualties" in the ranks of Al-Qaeda, a military official said without providing figures.

Meanwhile, the US National Intelligence Director James Clapper said Al-Qaeda in Yemen was clearly "a determined enemy," citing the group's attempts to blow up a US-bound airliner in December 2009 and cargo planes in October last year.

"We have substantial concerns about this group's capability to conduct additional attacks targeting the US homeland and US interests overseas, as well as its continuing propaganda efforts designed to inspire like-minded Western extremists to conduct attacks in their home countries," Clapper said.

US monitoring service SITE Intelligence reported that AQAP has threatened revenge for an air strike in Jaar which killed seven civilians last week.

In a statement released on jihadist forums on Tuesday, the extremist network said none of its fighters were killed in the September 5 raid but vowed the attack would not "pass without punishment."

At least 230 Yemeni soldiers and 50 tribal auxiliaries have been killed in the battle for Zinjibar, the defence ministry said on Sunday.

Since anti-government protests swept Yemen in late January, militants have taken advantage of the weakening of central authority to set up base in several southern provinces as well as Maarib province in the east.

Washington and other Western governments have repeatedly expressed growing concern about the role Al-Qaeda might play in Yemen if the regime of veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh collapses and a power vacuum ensues.

Separately, five opposition tribesmen were killed and several others wounded in clashes with troops loyal to Saleh in Arhab, which lies 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside Sanaa, a tribal source said.

Fierce clashes between both sides had left 23 tribesmen killed on August 15.

Troops loyal to Saleh's regime have been fighting tribes in various regions of Yemen as several of the heavily armed tribesmen sided with protesters demanding the ouster of Saleh since January.

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen since 1978, has been recovering in Saudi Arabia from a June 3 attack on his presidential compound.

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