Yemen army, in major victory, retakes two cities
By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN (Reuters) - The Yemeni army drove al-Qaeda-linked fighters from two of their main strongholds on Tuesday after weeks of fighting, the Defence Ministry said, a major breakthrough in a U.S.-backed offensive meant to secure stability in the wider oil-rich Gulf region.
Jubilant residents took to the streets of the Abyan 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 Jaar and Zinjibar is the army's biggest victory against the militants in more than a year of political turmoil that has taken Yemen to the brink of civil war 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, called the recapture of Jaar "an astounding defeat for al Qaeda", while residents said they were relieved.
"It is like seeing darkness being lifted from our lives after a year," Jaar resident Naseem Salem said by telephone.
The Defence 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.
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. Continued...