Yemen army official killed in ambush, army battles tribesmen

SANAA/ADEN Sat Dec 8, 2012 9:28am EST

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SANAA/ADEN Dec 8 (Reuters) - A senior Yemeni army official was killed on Saturday in an ambush by suspected al Qaeda members, while the army battled tribesmen who blew up the country's main oil export pipeline.

The chief-of-staff for Yemen's central military region in turbulent Maarib province, home to a large portion of the impoverished country's oil, died when gunmen fired on his vehicle, a security official said.

The attackers were probably militants linked to al Qaeda, said the official, who did not want to be identified.

Yemeni troops also launched an offensive in Maarib after an attack on the principal oil pipeline there on Friday. Two officers were killed and four soldiers injured in clashes with tribesmen, according to another security official.

Repairs had begun on the Maarib oil pipeline and power lines just last week after the government reached a deal with tribesmen to stop attacking infrastructure.

Yemen's oil and gas pipelines have been repeatedly sabotaged by Islamist militants or tribesmen since anti-government protests created a power vacuum in 2011, causing fuel shortages and slashing export earnings.

The 430-km (270-mile) pipeline used to carry 110,000 barrels per day from Maarib oil fields in the centre of the country to the Ras Isa export terminal on the Red Sea.

Its long closure last year forced the country's largest refinery at Aden to shut, leaving Yemen dependent on fuel donations from Saudi Arabia and imports.

Yemen has struggled to restore normality since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in February following a year of protests that forced his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years in power.

The return of stability is a priority for the United States and its Gulf allies because of Yemen's strategic position next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes, and because it is home to a major wing of al Qaeda.

Security forces also foiled a car bomb targetting the director for security operations in the eastern province of Hadramout on Saturday, a third local official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made its base in Yemen, and took advantage of the chaos last year in the run-up to and aftermath of Saleh stepping down, even taking over entire towns and areas in the south.

The group has mounted operations in neighbouring Saudi Arabia as well as attempting attacks against the United States, which has stepped up attacks by unmanned aircraft this year.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden, writing by Raissa Kasolowsky; editing by Jason Webb)

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