ADEN (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked group on Sunday freed 73 Yemeni soldiers it captured during a major assault in the south of the country last month, residents said, after mediation by religious scholars and tribal elders.
Residents of the southern town of Jaar, controlled by militants who call themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), saw the soldiers being let out of the school building where they were being held.
In a statement, the group said Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, had authorised their release after negotiations with tribal elders and religious scholars who visited Jaar, which the militants have renamed “the emirate of Waqar”.
Wuhayshi’s involvement is further evidence of Ansar al-Sharia’s links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which CIA director David Petraeus described last year as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad”.
A year of political upheaval in Yemen that eventually unseated President Ali Abdullah Saleh has emboldened militants in the country, especially in the south, where they have seized swathes of territory and carried out scores of attacks on security forces.
The soldiers were taken hostage by Ansar al-Sharia in one such attack on the city of Zinjibar during which more than one hundred other conscripts were killed.
Anxious over the increasing number and audacity of attacks, the United States has used drones to target militants. A local official said a U.S. drone struck a vehicle carrying suspected al Qaeda operatives in the northern province of al-Jawf on Sunday. The exact number of passengers and their fate was unknown.
Back in Jaar, it was not clear what, if anything, the militants had been offered in return for the soldiers’ release. Not long after their capture, they threatened to harm the soldiers unless the Yemeni government released Islamist fighters from jail.
A Yemeni journalist at the handover said the group had explained they were freeing the soldiers “for the sake of God” and in response to the appeals of the captives’ families and local tribal mediators.
“The militants invited local journalists, tribal mediators, human rights activists and the soldiers’ relatives to their stronghold, Jaar, to attend the ceremony,” said Wajdi al-Shaib. “The soldiers are now with their families on the way to Aden.”
Militants have sought to gain popularity by pledging to restore security, the rule of law and services which have deteriorated over the past year of civil unrest.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Susan Fenton