(Reuters) – Armed Yemeni tribesmen said on Wednesday they had killed a militant leader in the country’s south during a campaign by tribal and government forces to retake areas seized by Islamist fighters in the crisis-ridden Arabian Peninsula state.
Seven months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule have paralyzed Yemen, plunging it into a crisis that has loosened army control over swathes of the fractious, impoverished state.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have both been targeted by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing and fear that a power vacuum in the Arab world’s poorest country could present a major threat to international security.
Islamist militants who the government says belong to al Qaeda have exploited the upheaval to expand their foothold in the south, taking over at least two cities in the volatile southern province of Abyan including its capital Zinjibar.
A tribal leader in Abyan said tribesmen killed Yassir al-Shalily, a leader of Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law) during pitched battles overnight in Mudiyah, about 130 km (80 miles) from the southern port of Aden, when militants trying to enter the city were repelled.
A loose coalition of tribesmen and the army launched an offensive last month to try to flush militants out of the province, but it has recaptured little territory.
The identity of the militants is unclear. While the government has said they the Yemeni wing of Al Qaeda, analysts say other local Islamist groups could be at work. A publication associated with the group has said it is active there.
Other security analysts say followers of al Qaeda, which has little popularity among locals, may have rebranded themselves as Ansar al-Sharia to try to appeal to residents.
Opponents of Saleh, who previously earned U.S. backing by presenting himself as a partner in the West’s counter-terrorism strategy, say he has deliberately let militants tighten their grip in the south to show only he can keep al Qaeda in check.
Both Washington and Riyadh have pressed Saleh to sign a deal brokered by Yemen’s Gulf neighbors that would ease him from power. But he backed out of it three times at the very last minute, miring Yemen in a political deadlock that risks deteriorating into civil war.
Despite being severely injured in a June assassination attempt, Saleh, who left hospital three days ago, has vowed to return to Yemen, defying a chorus of demands he step down.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich)