ADEN, Yemen (AFP) – Yemeni authorities claimed to have regained control of the southern town of Loder, a great part of which was in the grip of suspected Al-Qaeda militants during days of clashes with the army.
“Security authorities have done their job efficiently and professionally,” Deputy Interior Minister General Saleh al-Zaweri said late Tuesday in a statement carried by the Saba state news agency.
He said that security forces have “stormed the dens of the terrorists” in Loder, in the province of Abyan, and were “chasing the runaway elements.”
“Security forces have taught the terrorists of Al-Qaeda a hard lesson and inflicted painful hits on them, forcing those terrorist elements that tried to hide, to flee after dozens were killed and wounded,” he added.
Zaweri said that more than 12 suspected Al-Qaeda militants were killed in the fighting which started on Friday.
An AFP tally based on official and medical sources had put the total death toll Tuesday at some 33 people, including 19 militants, 11 soldiers, and three civilians.
Other security officials in Abyan also said that Al-Qaeda’s fatalities were 12, and that all were Yemenis, Saba said.
Authorities had said that Adel Saleh Hardaba, 27, whom they described as the Al-Qaeda second-in-command in Loder, was among the dead.
The army had at that start of the fighting distributed pamphlets urging civilians in Loder, which has a population of 80,000, to leave.
Security officials told AFP at the weekend that civilians had mostly fled the city and that “only gunmen are left.” Many of the militants were believed to be foreigners, notably Saudis and Pakistanis.
South Yemen, and Abyan province in particular, is feared to have become a base for Al-Qaeda militants to regroup under the network’s local franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
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.
US officials cited by the Washington Post on Tuesday have warned that the threat of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen to US security has become higher than that of the core group based in Pakistan, recommending escalating US operations against AQAP.
“We are looking to draw on all of the capabilities at our disposal,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior official in the US President Barack Obama’s administration.
Adding armed CIA drones to a clandestine campaign of US military strikes was among the proposals, the paper said.
AQAP is “on the upswing,” said another US official according to the Post. “The relative concern ratios are changing. We’re more concerned now about AQAP than we were before.”
US military had conducted a secret air strike in May against a suspected group of Al-Qaeda militants in the remote desert of Marib province, the New York Times reported earlier this month, citing unnamed US officials.
It was at least the fourth such assault, it said, though these were never publicly acknowledged by the US administration or Yemeni authorities.