By Jeffrey Fleishman and Zaid Al-Alayaa, Los Angeles Times –
SANAA, Yemen — Militants intensified their attacks against U.S.-backed Yemeni military forces on Sunday, killing at least 35 government soldiers in a lawless southern region that has become a battleground of suicide bombers, heavy weapons, assassinations and kidnappings.
The clashes in Abyan province — more than 15 militants were also reported killed — were part of an escalation in violence by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and its affiliates. The surge in bloodshed comes after newly elected President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi vowed to crush extremists who have exploited the nation’s political and tribal chaos.
Yemen’s Saba news agency said “many soldiers have been killed and injured in clashes between the army troops and al-Qaida militants in the southern governorate” at an army base near the provincial capital, Zinjibar. The agency said that after “severe fighting,” security forces had regained control of part of the area.
A military source said more than 60 people died in firefights, including at least 35 soldiers, when Islamic extremists set off car bombs and launched an early-morning raid with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Officials said that militants, who may have captured more than 50 soldiers, seized artillery and rockets from the base’s arsenal. Residents said extremists also drove away with three tanks and other armored vehicles.
The south has become a dangerous patchwork of villages and towns overrun by extremists. So far, government forces, which are also contending with a well-armed separatist movement, have been unable to supplant the militant networks that, according to some reports, have been fortified by arrivals of foreign fighters.
Sunday’s attacks came a day after one soldier died when suicide bombers drove a car rigged with explosives into a base in Bayda province. That assault followed an ambush by gunmen on a U.S. security team training Yemeni soldiers; no Americans were injured.
The drumbeat of assaults and land grabs by al-Qaida has steadily picked up pace since the summer, culminating in a suicide bombing at a presidential palace last month that killed 25, mostly members of the Republican Guard. The explosion was a brazen statement: It came the day Hadi was sworn in to replace longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Security officials worry that militants are targeting government buildings and military bases in the capital, Sanaa. The army, controlled by Saleh’s family but divided by mutiny, has been receiving U.S. training and backing by American drones that have killed a number of key al-Qaida operatives over the last year.
The Yemeni army has broadened its offensive against the militants, including al-Qaida-linked Ansar al Sharia, in an attempt to retake territory around Zinjibar and other southern towns and stem a string of assassinations against army and security forces commanders.
Saeed Ali Obaid Jamhi, an expert on militants in Yemen, said al-Qaida has grown bolder as it seeks to deepen its foothold in the south and widen its appeal to tribesmen frustrated with the government, which many Yemenis regard as too close to the West.
“Al-Qaida is telling the government,” said Jamhi, “if you threaten or disturb our security in areas that we control, we will threaten and disturb your security in areas you control and we are capable of reaching your most guarded palaces.”
He added, “Al-Qaida today has more members and a lot more powerful weapons.”
This has increased pressure on Hadi’s government, which is confronting poverty, economic turmoil, clan animosities, a rebellion in the north and fears from the West that Yemen will slip into a civil war.