Yemeni army tightens hold on southern city

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 11, 2011 11:29 AM
Yemeni army tightens hold on southern city

ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni troops killed four Islamist militants on Sunday as the army consolidated its grip on Zinjibar, a day after recapturing the southern city from a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia, a military spokesman said.

Separately, a ruling party official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh was expected to empower his deputy to negotiate over a Gulf-sponsored plan for the transfer of power, but that he would not give up his state powers immediately.

Residents said a Yemeni air strike killed at least three fighters near the militant-held town of Jaar, apparently as they were fleeing toward it from Zinjibar.

Ansar al-Sharia, which the government says is linked to the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seized Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, in May, cutting off an army brigade in a nearby barracks.

The army said on Saturday it had retaken the coastal city and linked up with the stranded 25th brigade after a two-month offensive backed by air strikes and heavy weaponry.

Islamist militants have seized swathes of territory in Abyan, exploiting turmoil in a country convulsed for months by protests against Saleh's 33-year rule.

Opponents of Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from a bomb attack on his Sanaa palace in June, have accused him of exaggerating the al Qaeda threat or even manipulating militants as a ploy to scare Washington and Riyadh into backing him.

KEEP POWERS

"This evening President Saleh will issue a decision giving his deputy the power to negotiate with the opposition about ... the Gulf power transfer initiative, but he will keep his other powers," Sultan Barakani, assistant secretary general of the ruling party, told Reuters.

The party on Wednesday proposed changes to the power transfer deal to give Saleh 90 days instead of 30 to leave power once he signs it.

The opposition has been wary that Saleh would again reject the plan. He has backed out of signing it at the last minute three times.

The deal would have him transfer his powers to his vice president, Abbd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After Saleh leaves, elections would be held and the opposition would form an interim unity government for a two-year transition period, retaining Hadi as interim president.

The government would use the time to draft a constitution and hold a dialogue with insurgent groups such as Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the north and southern separatists.

Zinjibar, lying east of a shipping strait through which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily, has been devastated by fighting and air strikes, the military spokesman said.

The four militants were killed during an army sweep of the al-Masaymeer and al-Khamla districts of the city, he added.

Tens of thousands of Zinjibar residents fled to Aden after their city became a battle zone and the government lost control.

In Sanaa, Hadi hailed the 25th brigade, saying it had lost 90 dead and 600 wounded during the months of fighting, the state news agency Saba reported.

"Abyan province has become a graveyard for al Qaeda, and 30 known leaders of this group were killed there," Hadi told Western ambassadors in the Yemeni capital.

Yemen's embassy in Washington said in a statement that Saudi Arabia and the United States had "provided logistical support during the ongoing operations" in Abyan, but gave no details.

Washington and Riyadh, both targets of AQAP attacks in the past, fear lawlessness and political chaos in Yemen will give the group more freedom to operate.

In Aden, the capital of southern Yemen, an army colonel commanding an armored brigade fighting militants in Abyan survived an assassination attempt, a security official said.

He said an explosion destroyed a car and the gates of the colonel's house, in the latest of several attacks on military or security officers in Aden province in recent months.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

(Reporting by Yazen Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Janet Lawrence)