ADEN, Yemen (AFP) – Al-Qaeda militants besieged in the southern Yemeni town of Hota are using residents as human shields in the second major clash between them and troops in recent weeks, an official said on Tuesday.
“Al-Qaeda elements are preventing residents from leaving Hota, to use them as human shields,” a security official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In late August, government forces and alleged Al-Qaeda militants fought a pitched battle in the town of Loder in Abyan province, which adjoins Shabwa, where Hota is located.
A government siege of Hota, seeking to dislodge the militants there, is now in its fourth day, and thousands of residents have already fled.
Out of roughly 20,000 people in Hota, 8,000-12,000 have managed to get out, said a preliminary Yemeni Red Crescent report released on Tuesday.
On Monday, Al-Qaeda members killed a tribal leader, Abdulwahed al-Mansur, and wounded a woman and two children, said Abdullah Ateq, chief administrator for the Mayfa district, which includes Hota.
He added that sporadic clashes occurred on Tuesday, but government forces, which received reinforcements from Sanaa, “have not yet managed to enter Hota” and are about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the centre of town.
Between 80 and 100 suspected Al-Qaeda militants are in the town and the mountainous areas overlooking it, a local official said.
A tribal mediation effort seeking an end to hostilities and the “surrender of the terrorists” was unsuccessful, almotamar.com, the website of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, on Tuesday quoted Shabwa Governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi as saying.
“These terrorists are determined to continue on the path of death,” Ahmadi said, adding that government forces “will clear the region of these elements and will not allow them to escape.”
While the situation for residents still in Hota is dangerous, those who fled also face a tough road.
“I am living with no shelter, like hundreds of other refugees, without any aid from authorities or charities,” said Adnan Mohammed Ali, a refugee in Kharma, three kilometres (1.8 miles) from Hota.
“People need help, said Hussein bin Abdullah Bahanan, a tribal leader from Hota who was reached by telephone in Bureika, a village in the area where he is currently living.
In its preliminary report, the Red Crescent said the refugees are in need of food, blankets, and medical supplies.
At 33 least people, including 19 militants, were killed in the August fighting in Loder, according to an AFP tally based on official and medical sources.
But unlike in Hota, where a large number of civilians remain, security officials said civilians mostly fled Loder and that “only gunmen (were) left.”
Days after the government said its forces had regained control of Loder, suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen targeted an army post with rocket-propelled grenades in the Abyan town of Jaar, killing 12 people, including one civilian.
The reach of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is by no means limited to Yemen’s south.
On Monday, AQAP posted a statement on jihadist forums saying it is holding the deputy director of political security for the northern Saada province, Colonel Ali Mohammed Saleh al-Hussam, who was kidnapped on August 26, the US-based SITE monitoring group reported.
The group said it would kill Hussam if the government did not release two AQAP fighters within 48 hours, a deadline that expires on Wednesday.
Largely tribal Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Yemen has intensified operations against AQAP since December. The network has claimed responsibility for a December 25 attempt to blow up a US airliner over Detroit.
In addition to the Al-Qaeda threat, Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is contending with a sporadic Shiite rebellion in the north and a growing separatist movement in the south.