Yemeni government forces have recaptured a strategic southern town from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, killed more than 50 militant fighters in the last few days and forced the resignation of an air force commander who had resisted the political and security aims of the Arab country's new leadership, diplomatic sources and news agencies reported Tuesday.
Reports of the government's retaking of key government buildings and large swaths of Zinjibar, capital of the Abyan region, coincided with the visit of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to Sana, the capital, for talks on ways to shore up the joint fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. intelligence officials have said they consider the Yemen-based group the greatest security threat bequeathed by the late Osama bin Laden.
One of the group's most wanted figures, Mohammed Saeed Umda, was killed in an airstrike Sunday in Marib province, the Yemeni government said Tuesday in a statement from its Washington embassy. It did not make clear who staged the air assault, but U.S. drone activity has increased in recent weeks and Mueller was reportedly seeking broader backing for air targeting of militants during his meetings with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Umda, who had been convicted of orchestrating the 2002 suicide bombing of the French oil tanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden, escaped from prison in 2006 along with about two dozen other militants, and was suspected in a rash of more recent terrorist activity in southern Yemen. The jailbreak made international headlines and provided propaganda for Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials confirmed the airstrike, but said they have not confirmed that Umda was killed.
Yemeni troops killed 52 militants in operations over the weekend, the Defense Ministry reported Tuesday, according to the Reuters news agency. YemenOnline reported over the weekend that the Al Qaeda-allied group Ansar al Sharia had acknowledged that fighters "encountered a massive offensive by Sana regime forces." Ansar al Sharia contended then that the militants still held Zinjibar, which they captured 11 months ago amid widespread political turmoil aimed at ousting longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh left office under a negotiated leadership change in February, but many of his relatives and loyalists have remained in their offices and put up resistance to Hadi's efforts and collaboration with U.S. authorities to drive Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out of its Yemeni strongholds. The militants had made significant inroads into the oil-producing areas and strategic coastal territory from which it was feared they were planning attacks on oil shipments.
Hadi's government announced Tuesday that Saleh's half brother, Mohammed Saleh Ahmar, had resigned as air force commander, a major symbolic victory for Hadi in removing one of the former president's most powerful vestiges from the new hierarchy.
"The hand-over has taken place as stated in the decree issued by the president," U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar told reporters in Sana, describing the transition as smooth and unconditional, Reuters reported.
Mueller was in Sana "to reinforce Washington's strong commitment to President Hadi's new administration and Yemen's ongoing political transition," said Yemeni Embassy spokesman Mohammed Albasha. During their talks, Albasha said, "President Hadi emphasized that he is strongly committed to combating extremism and working with the U.S. to counter the mutual threat of terrorism."
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is also suspected of instigating other attacks on Western targets, including the thwarted attempt by a Yemeni militant to bomb a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009. Al Qaeda extremists from Yemen were also behind the 2000 suicide bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, in which 17 U.S. sailors died.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Ken Dilanian in Washington
Photo: FBI Director Robert Mueller, left, meets with Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, right, in Sana to discuss the growing threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen's embattled south. Credit: Yemeni presidential office