Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – At least 44 people were killed, including 14 Yemeni soldiers, during an Al Qaeda attack against a military barracks in the town of Lawdar in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan yesterday. This represents the latest in a spate of attacks carried out by Al Qaeda in southern Yemen. The strategically important town of Lawdar had previously been under Al Qaeda control last year, before the extremist group was forced to retreat after the Yemeni military and local tribes joined together to take part the town.
Local sources claimed that the Yemeni military withdrew from Lawdar following the attack on their barracks on Monday, leaving the defense of the city to local tribesman loyal to the Yemeni military.
Informed sources in Lawdar told Asharq Al-Awsat that fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia group – an Al Qaeda affiliate – had attacked Lawdar following dawn prayers on Mondays from several different directions. The source claimed that the Al Qaeda affiliates were seeking to gain control of the southern Yemeni town, in the same manner they have captured and gained control of other towns and cities in Abyan province, including the governorate capital Zinjibar.
A source within the Lawdar Youth Forum – a group that was instrumental in defending the town from the Al Qaeda attack – informed Asharq Al-Awsat that local youths and civilians had opposed the attack with their personal weapons (AK-47s), continuing to defend the town following the army’s withdrawal in order to ensure that it does not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda.
The source stressed that the militants had attacked the military barracks in Lawdar, which is located next to the power plant in southern Lawdar. He added that the Al Qaeda affiliates were able to gain control of the military barracks and seize military equipment stored here, including tanks and military vehicles.
The Lawdar Youth Forum source also revealed that officers and soldiers stationed at the Lawdar barracks had retreated in the face of the attack, adding that Ansar al-Sharia were also able to gain control of a “secret” military outpost located near Jabal Yousef, north-east of Lawdar.
He added that local civilians had taken up arms and fought “like heroes” to defend Lawdar, whilst Al Qaeda utilized military vehicles and artillery – seized from the Yemeni military –in the attack.
Information also revealed that the objective of the latest Al Qaeda attacks was to re-gain control of the city of Lawdar, after they had been driven out by the Lawdar Youth Forum in July 2011, following weeks of violent confrontation. Ansar al-Sharia has also sought to attack and gain control of other towns and cities in Abyan province.
Sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that 5 members of the Lawdar Youth Forum were killed in Monday’s attack, whilst 15 others were injured. Whilst a military source revealed that 14 soldiers, including an officer, were killed in the attack. The Yemeni military also claimed that 24 militants had been killed, along with 6 tribesmen. Other estimates claim that closer to 18 Yemeni soldiers were killed in the attack.
The same source also claimed that the bodies of Al Qaeda members were lying in the streets of Lawdar, but nobody was able to reach these due to the presence of snipers.
This attack confirms Al Qaeda’s intention to regain control of the strategically important town of Lawdar, which serves as a crossroads between a number of southern Yemeni provinces.
For his part, a source in the Lawdar local authority stressed that “the army withdrew under the severity of the attack” and that “Lawdar residents are the ones protecting the town.”
He also claimed that Lawdar residents and pro-military tribesmen had regained control of the entire town, including the army barracks, by the end of the day. The source added that the Lawdar youth who had defended the city against the militants had established camps parallel to the military barracks in order to protect this strategically-important town.
Ansar al-Sharia is a militant group that was reportedly founded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] in response to the growing youth movement in Yemen, which had marginalized jihadists seeking to violently overthrow the government. The group had previously captured 73 Yemeni soldiers during violent confrontations with the army in early March. They are demanding that Sanaa release 600 Al Qaeda prisoners in return for the captured soldiers. The Yemeni government has yet to respond to this.