- Associated Press - Sunday, April 29, 2012

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al Qaeda in Yemen said Sunday it had released 73 soldiers captured by its fighters during battles with government forces in the south of the country.

The terror network said in an emailed statement that the freeing of the soldiers followed mediation efforts by tribal elders and senior clerics. Relatives of some freed prisoners confirmed the release.

Also Sunday, Yemeni security officials said three suspected al Qaeda militants were killed when a missile hit their SUV in northeastern Yemen. The officials had no details on the source of the attack or the identity of the three. U.S. drones have been active over Yemen, tracking and striking al Qaeda operatives with missiles.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The freeing of the 73 soldiers was likely to bolster the standing of the terror network in Yemen, where its fighters took advantage of more than a year of political turmoil to capture areas in the nearly lawless south. The negotiations went through both tribal and religious channels, suggesting that the al Qaeda network in the south has been integrated in the area’s social fabric in some ways.

The soldiers were freed in the city of Jaar in the southern province of Abyan in a ceremony attended by top leaders of the terror network in Yemen, including military leader Qasim al-Rimi, witnesses and the statement said. The mediation lasted three days and involved asking Yemen’s military to halt attacks on the city, including airstrikes, while the talks were in progress. The soldiers left in trucks and private cars for the nearby port city of Aden.

Al Qaeda has held Jaar for a year. The province’s capital, Zinjibar, is also under al Qaeda control, but government troops fought their way into its center last week.

The released soldiers pledged in writing not to resume fighting al Qaeda militants, witnesses said.

In a separate development, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has resigned from his post as head of his one-time ruling Congress Party, clearing the way for his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to take over when the party holds its annual meeting later this year, party officials said. Abdul-Karim al-Aryani, the party’s vice president, will lead the party until then.

Mr. Saleh was forced to step down in the face of a yearlong uprising against his authoritarian rule. He handed over power to Mr. Hadi in February as part of a U.S.-backed peace deal offered by neighboring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies.

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