SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Thousands of Yemeni troops backed by tanks and warplanes launched an offensive on Wednesday in a southern province to drive al-Qaida militants from the area, killing at least seven suspected militants, the Defense Ministry said.
The unusually large operation followed efforts by Yemen's new government to force remaining al-Qaida militants out of their former strongholds captured during a year of political turmoil in Yemen that ended with the replacement of its longtime president early last year.
The operation in Hadramawt began at dawn and involved more than 10,000 troops, officials said. Attack helicopters and jet fighters provided air support. The fighting was taking place in farmland, and civilians have been instructed to stay indoors.
"The successful operation resulted in killing of seven leaders and members of the terrorist al-Qaida group and injury of large number of them, in addition to destruction of weapon caches and takeover of equipment, explosives and motorcycles used in cowardly assassinations," a Defense Ministry statement said. It said one military commander was killed and five others wounded.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi praised the military offensive, describing it as heroic. "The battle against terrorism will be decisive," he pledged.
The United States sees al-Qaida branch in Yemen as among the world's most active in the terror network. Its fighters overran large swaths of southern Yemen in 2001 but they have been pushed back with U.S. help.
Yemen has been torn by wars on several fronts. In addition to al-Qaida in the south, almost a decade ago Shiite Yemenis began a rebellion in the northern city of Saada, complaining of marginalization.
Thousands were killed on both sides during that uprising.
The Shiite rebels are often referred to as Hawthis after their spiritual leader, cleric Hussein Badr Eddin al-Hawthi, who led the 2004 uprising and was killed later that year. His body was first buried in undisclosed location, and Hadi ordered the body handed over to the family last month.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Yemenis attended the funeral for al-Hawthi, joined by a Cabinet minister as a good will gesture to the former rebels by the new leadership.
Leading political parties differ in their views to the former Shiite rebel group. The Socialist Party sent the Hawthis a condolence message, calling al-Hawthi a "martyr." The Islamist Reform party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused them of receiving funds from Iran.
The former rebels are taking part in the country's six-month National Dialogue, which aims at getting all Yemen's rival groups, political parties, religious and tribal leaders together to discuss a new political system for the country before drafting a constitution.