London and Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Friends of Yemen group urged Sana’a on Tuesday to set out a clear timetable for a referendum on a new constitution and subsequent elections as the military continued a major offensive against Al-Qaeda militants in the south of the country.
In a meeting jointly chaired by Saudi Arabia, Britain and Yemen in London, the Friends of Yemen announced the establishment of a new senior-level Steering Committee to coordinate their support for Yemen, in addition to the creation of three working groups focused on key economic, political and security reforms.
“The Friends of Yemen reiterate that the only way to a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Yemen is through the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative,” a statement from the group of 39 nations and organizations affirmed. The Friends of Yemen also acknowledged the need for economic and political reform, particularly tackling corruption and investing in infrastructure, calling on Sana’a to quickly establish a timetable for vital economic reforms.
The group welcomed UN Security Council resolution 2140, which established a sanctions committee with a view to applying measures against individuals or entities believed to be engaged in or providing support for acts that threaten Yemen’s peace, security or stability.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, British Ambassador to Yemen Jane Marriott stressed that the Friends of Yemen conference is important because it highlights the interests of Yemen at a time when the international community is facing numerous crises.
Yemen continues to face a number of security challenges, most prominently from the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group. Sana’a launched a major military offensive against Al-Qaeda militants in the south of the country after the intermittent conflict between government forces and the terrorist group heated up earlier this month.
The first major raid in that new security offensive resulted in the deaths of of 55 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters during a raid in Shabwa province, with reports that AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri was among those killed. The raid came in response to video depicting the group’s emir, Nasir Al-Wuahyshi, openly meeting with hundreds of AQAP fighters in Yemen and pledging renewed attacks on the US.
The major offensive by Yemen’s armed forces, coodinating with members of the Popular Committees, tribal leaders and police forces, is part of Operation Together for a Yemen without Terrorism.
The state-run SABA news agency reported that three Al-Qaeda militants were killed and 10 others wounded in Abyan province in a government raid on Wednesday, quoting a Yemeni military official. The report said five “leading” Al-Qaeda militants had been killed in Shabwa province on Tuesday.
But a Yemeni security source speaking on the condition of anonymity informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the death toll could be significantly higher, reporting that at least 27 people were killed in the fighting, including 15 soldiers.
The major offensive came as Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi claimed on Tuesday that 70 percent of AQAP fighters are non-Yemeni nationals. “These foreigners don’t care if the country is destroyed,” SABA quoted the president as saying.
Speaking at the opening of the Friends of Yemen conference on Tuesday, British foreign secretary William Hague stressed that the group must back Sana’a’s attempts to eradicate AQAP, saying: “We have to be clear that the international community will not tolerate acts of violence or other actions intended to derail Yemen’s transition, and AQAP must have nowhere to hide.”
“We [the Friends of Yemen] must all continue to support stability and to counter terrorism, including through reform of the security sector,” Hague said, adding that “AQAP is still a threat both within Yemen and internationally,” he added.
Arafat Madabish contributed reporting from Sana’a