- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni troops and armed tribesmen drove al Qaeda militants from two major strongholds in the south on Tuesday, a major victory in a U.S.-backed offensive to regain control of large swaths of territory from the terror network in the Arab world’s most impoverished country.

The capture of Jaar and Zinjibar came after weeks of heavy bombardment and shelling of al Qaeda positions, with the help of dozens of U.S. troops stationed at a command center in an air base near the conflict zone deep in the southern desert. Troops also liberated a vital highway that links Jaar with the port city of Aden, according to the Yemeni Defense Ministry.

Al Qaeda in Yemen, which the U.S. considers the most dangerous offshoot of the terror network, had exploited the country’s political turmoil that resulted from last year’s uprising against former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize major population centers in the southern province of Abyan. That move raised fears al Qaeda could use the area as a foothold to launch more attacks on U.S. targets.

The latest strikes leave al Qaeda scattered in smaller towns, valleys, desert and mountainous areas — similar to the group’s situation before the revolt that ousted Mr. Saleh began in February 2011. SABA, the Yemeni state news agency, said most of the militants fled to the nearby coastal town of Shaqra, the last remaining major al Qaeda stronghold in Abyan province. Sleeper cells, officials say, will also be a major source of concerns to the Yemeni leadership.

The militant group said it had retreated from Zinjibar and Jaar to “spare bloodshed,” but it also threatened to retaliate by attacking Yemen‘s capital, Sanaa. In an emailed statement, the group addressed the Yemeni leadership as “crusaders and American agents” and warned, “We will chase you in your cities and palaces.”

Yemeni troops and allied tribesmen swooped into Jaar in a surprise dawn attack after hours of heavy shelling by artillery and rockets from hilltop positions, military officials said. Pro-government fighters rode into town from three different fronts in trucks, while dozens of tanks were used to block the town’s entry and exit points, they added.

Residents flocked to the town’s center and fired guns in the air in celebration. Others looted warehouses filled with humanitarian supplies delivered by relief groups, Waleed Mohammed, a resident, said in a telephone interview.

Gamal al-Aqil, the governor of Abyan province, said Yemeni troops had dealt “painful blows” to al Qaeda “in their biggest dens in Abyan.”

“We called the operation the Golden Swords,” he said.

Gen. Mohammed al-Quton, the Ministry of Defense spokesman, told SABA that 20 militants and four troops were killed in the fighting.

Jaar is a gateway to the strategic port of Aden, through which Yemen exports more than 60 percent of its oil and controls the southern tip of the Red Sea.

The officials and witnesses said that some 500 al Qaeda militants, including foreigners, fled the town after spray-painting walls and store shutters with slogans in red saying: “Al Qaeda has withdrawn. Al Qaeda was not defeated.”

The Defense Ministry spokesman said al Qaeda’s defenses collapsed a day after army troops seized an ammunition factory called Oct. 7 on a hilltop overlooking Jaar. Since then, Katyusha missiles and warplanes pounded positions of al Qaeda in the outskirts of Jaar, 250 miles southeast of Sanaa.

Jaar resident Khaled Mohsen said that residents had lost hope that the military would be able to defeat al Qaeda.

“We thought it would take a year in order for the army to get rid of al Qaeda, but we were surprised when they swept into the town in no time,” Mr. Mohsen said. “I have been hearing constant exchange of gunfire all night; then suddenly everything was quiet. I looked from the windows, and I saw soldiers in uniform in the center of the town.”

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