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U.S.-backed Yemeni troops attack al Qaeda in southern state

DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemeni troops, backed by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, conducted raids against the local affiliate of al Qaeda in Shabwa province on Thursday, the Emirati state news agency WAM said.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of a civil war pitting the Houthi movement against the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to try to widen its control and influence in Yemen.

“Since early morning on Thursday, Yemeni troops and Hadrami (from Hadramout province) Elite Forces, with U.S. and UAE backing, moved to smash elements of the terrorist organizations, especially AQAP,” WAM reported.

WAM did not say what kind of support the UAE and U.S. militaries had provided or give details on the outcome of the raids.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, confirmed the operation in a statement issued later Thursday.

“Yemeni government armed forces launched a major operation against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants in the Shabwah Governorate of Yemen. The operation is being closely supported by a combined UAE and U.S. enabling force,” he said.

Otaiba gave no details of the support provided by UAE and U.S. forces.

Air strikes by U.S. drones and manned aircraft against the militant group are frequent. But large-scale ground operations by regional troops have been rare since 2015, when the group was driven out of the mini-state it had established in the port city of Mukalla.

Shabwa, one of the key southern Yemeni provinces, is where the U.S. military carried out an air strike in June that killed Abu Khattab al Awlaqi, one of the emirs of AQAP, along with two other militants.

It is also the site of Yemen’s only gas terminal, in the province’s port of Belhaf, and the pipeline feeding the terminal has been targeted several times by AQAP, al Qaeda’s most active branch. The terminal stopped operating after foreign experts were evacuated in 2015.

Operations against the militants are complicated by the Yemeni civil war. A Saudi-led coalition is fighting Houthi rebels backed by Iran and troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a campaign to restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi.

The forces are largely stalemated but the fighting has plunged millions into poverty, displaced millions of others and killed more than 10,000 people.

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Larry King and James Dalgleish