Sanaa: Government troops and warplanes pounded al Qaeda positions in southern Yemen on Wednesday, killing at least 29 militants as part of a ramped up campaign against the group, military officials said.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters have taken over a swath of territory and several towns in the south, including the Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar, in the past year, pushing out government forces and setting up their own rule. In recent weeks, the army has launched a concerted effort to dislodge the militants from their strongholds, and is closely coordinating with US troops who are helping guide the operations from inside Yemen.
Today, Yemeni airstrikes hit a farm in Moudia, some 40 kilometres east of the town of Lawder in Abyan, where al Qaeda fighters were holed up, killing at least 16 militants including top local commander Samir al-Fathani, officials said.
Witnesses said plumes of smoke drifted over the site, which was littered with the charred wreckage of two destroyed vehicles.
Al-Fathani`s brother, Abdel-Monem al-Fathani, was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and was killed in a US airstrike in Abyan in late January.
The fighting is part of a four-front offensive the military began yesterday, using warplanes and heavy artillery to clear the way for an assault by ground troops on towns where al Qaeda fighters are either operating or in control. For the first time, Yemen`s army is receiving direct help from US troops, who are operating from a desert air base near the main battle zones to help coordinate assaults and airstrikes, according to Yemeni officials.
The officials said it was the most direct American involvement yet in the country`s expanding campaign against al Qaeda`s branch in Yemen, which has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on US soil from its hideouts in the impoverished country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Today, tribal militiamen fighting alongside government forces killed 13 militants who were trying to retake a strategic hilltop, Youssef Mountain, overlooking Lawder. Two militiamen were killed in the fighting, officials said.
On another front in Zinjibar, hit-and-run gunbattles between government troops and al Qaeda fighters left four soldiers dead, according to a military hospital official.
Also, a security official said a Jordanian surgeon was arrested on suspicion he was heading to Zinjibar to join al Qaeda.
All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to brief the media.