Yemeni soldiers free officer they abducted

SANAA Sun Jul 8, 2012 2:26pm EDT

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SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni soldiers on Sunday freed a senior officer who they kidnapped last month, an official said, in a case that raised concerns about the unity of an army engaged in a U.S.-backed offensive against Islamist militants.

A popular uprising last year triggered a string of defections from the army, dividing its ranks into pro and anti-government camps that fought each other and dragged the impoverished state to the brink of civil war.

Brigadier General Murad al-Awbali, commander of the 62nd brigade of the Republican Guards, was a loyalist of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted in February.

He was abducted after he stopped paying salaries to soldiers who had broken ranks last year with the former president and his son, Ahmed, who still heads the Republican Guard.

"(Tribal) mediators gave guarantees to the kidnappers that their frozen salaries would be released," the official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Awbali had been implicated in a crackdown on anti-government protests in the city of Taiz last year.

Washington, alarmed by the apparent strength of al Qaeda-linked militancy in Yemen, has urged the country's leaders to unify its army.

It has backed an army offensive in the restive south with training, intelligence and increased aid, and has also used unmanned drones to target suspected militants.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Pravin Char)

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