Sanaa: Islamic militants have consolidated their hold over a southern city in Yemen, forcing merchants to lower food prices and helping residents who want to flee shelling by government forces outside the city, residents said Monday.
In contrast, militants in control of another nearby city are enforcing a stringent version of Islamic rule, forcing women to stay home and trying to recruit young men to their ranks, according to residents there.
Government forces do not appear to have the will to fight the Islamists, raising fears that al Qaeda`s most dangerous wing is making significant gains as the weakened regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh unravels in the face of an array of opponents.
So far, government troops and warplanes have only been shelling the two cities, Zinjibar and Jaar, in southern Abyan province, often missing their targets and hitting residential areas instead.
The recent advances made by the militants in the nearly lawless south are a clear attempt to exploit the power vacuum and turmoil caused by a popular uprising against Saleh that began in February. It gained momentum when a coterie of the president`s close aides, military commanders and Cabinet ministers joined the protesters.
Even before the revolt began, the shaky regime was already under threat from a secessionist movement in the south, a Shiite rebellion in the north and an increasingly bold, if not large, cadre of al Qaeda militants who used Yemen as a base to plot at least two major attacks on US targets. Though the attacks did not cause any casualties, they did cause alarm.
Saleh, Yemen`s leader of nearly 33 years, left for neighboring Saudi Arabia on June 5 to treat severe wounds he suffered when his compound in the capital Sanaa was attacked. It is not clear when — or if — he will return, deepening uncertainty in the poor nation at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
The turmoil has emboldened militants, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda , to operate in the open, capturing and holding territory in the south. Some of these militants have at one time or another enjoyed Saleh`s patronage as part of his delicate balance act, using them against rivals, particularly in the south where secessionist sentiments are strong.
The militants, operating under the name "Ansar al-Sunna," or supporters of Islamic Sharia law, captured the coastal city of Zinjibar in late May.
Zinjibar is on the Arabian Sea and normally has a population of about 150,000. But residents on Monday said large parts of the city are deserted and most stores are shuttered. There is a shortage of drinking water, forcing residents to bring water from wells on the city`s outskirts.
They said the province`s main hospital, al-Rajaa, on the road to the nearby city of Jaar, has been taken over by the militants and is being run by physicians from Sudan and Syria. They said the militants also have taken over local government offices.
"Why has not the army moved in to retake the city?" asked Zinjibar resident Ali al-Sumeiti, 22. "Now, from every 10 shells they fire on the city, only one hits the militants."
Another Zinjibar resident, 65-year-old retiree Abdullah al-Mohandes, said residents were running out of food and were heavily dependent on kitchen gardens to survive.
Al-Mohandes, however, had some praise for the militants.
"To be completely honest, we have not been badly treated by the mujahideen. On the contrary, they try to win our goodwill all the time," he said. "If you tell them you want to leave town, they escort you out and give you money to tide you over."
Others said the militants were doing services for the population that has remained behind by forcing traders to sell food cheaper and helping with trash collection.
The Islamic militants have held the city since they captured it despite of near daily bombing from the air and artillery stationed a few miles outside the city.
The latest barrage, according to security officials, came at dawn on Monday, killing 12 militants and wounding scores. The officials said a total of 35 homes in the city have been destroyed in government shelling over the past two weeks alone.
Five more militants were killed and seven soldiers wounded in clashes later on Monday at Abyan`s Dovas valley area, which is close to Zinjibar, according to the officials.
Also on Monday, the Defense Ministry said six suspected al Qaeda militants have been arrested as they tried to enter Aden, southern Yemen`s largest city, to target strategic installations there. The ministry did not say when the arrests were made, but security officials said the six were detained Saturday along with a truck loaded with explosives and weapons concealed under a cargo of cattle feed.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In contrast to Zinjibar, residents of nearby Jaar are unhappy with their city`s new militant masters.
The Islamists have been feuding with local clerics over control of the city`s main mosque and have daily been using loudspeakers to urge the city`s young men to join them.
Women have not been allowed to leave their homes except when chaperoned by their fathers, husbands or brothers.
Anwar Salim, the imam of the disputed mosque, has been criticizing the militants in his sermons, saying their beliefs were against the spirit of Islam.
"If they must fight their enemies, they should get out of the city and do it elsewhere," he told worshippers from the pulpit one recent day. Scuffles often break out between the militants and the locals.
The residents are further disheartened by the growing number of the militants.
"Every day, more of them come to the city, sometimes five, 10 or 15," said resident Waleed Mohammed. "Why cannot the government block roads leading to the city?"
Abdullah Ghaleb, an unemployed university graduate fled Jaar with his family and took refuge in Aden. He blames Saleh`s regime for the proliferation of the militant groups.
"The regime has over the years provided them with weapons and money. No one can deny this," he said. "But the reality is that these groups have no relation to Islam. They force a specific daily lifestyle on people and that`s why I left the city."