ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni tribesmen who had withdrawn from a joint army offensive against Islamist militants in the south said Wednesday they had rejoined the fight, despite losing at least 15 people in friendly fire by warplanes last week.
The leader of local tribesmen allied to the army, Mohammed al-Gaadani, warned the military another botched strike could scare off the tribes, who were seen as a critical element to the success of its campaign.
“We caution the government’s forces to be careful of another strike on our fighters. Repeating that mistake will lessen the tribes’ desire to help clear out the militants,” he said.
Three weeks ago, Yemen’s army launched a massive offensive on militants suspected of ties to al Qaeda, who have seized several towns in southern Abyan province in recent months.
Army units, backed by tribal fighters who had grown frustrated by the state’s inability to drive out militants, have been struggling to retake the provincial coastal capital Zinjibar, which lies east of a major shipping lane where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Reports from tribesmen said that somewhere between 15 and 40 of their fighters were killed in an air strike, just hours after the tribal fighters had wrested a strategic point outside the city from the hands of militants.
“The tribal fighters then withdrew from the battle area for two days but they’ve returned now after we discussed the importance of fighting these extremist elements and clearing Zinjibar of their presence,” Gaadani told Reuters by telephone.
A local official confirmed that the army’s tribal allies had returned to their locations around Zinjibar as the army continued to push to retake the strategic city.
As the Arab world’s poorest state is rocked by over six months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abyan province has been steeped in daily violence from rising unrest, which has forced some 90,000 residents to flee.
The United States and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, are wary of rising turmoil in the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, and fear it could give the group more room to operate.
The main army unity in Abyan fighting militants outside of Zinjibar, the 25th brigade, has complained of a lack of reinforcements and resources as it struggles to gain ground.
The brigade is linked to a top general, Ali Mohsen, who defected to protesters several months ago. The 25th brigade, which has refused to announce its political loyalties since the general switched sides, has been cooperating with other units that support the president in its fight with militants.
The troops have yet to recapture any major cities such as Zinjibar or Jaar, although with the help of tribes they were able to retake a makeshift military base seized two months ago.
Saleh’s opponents accuse him of letting his forces ease their grip around militant strongholds in order to provoke a resurgence in fighting to stoke concerns that al Qaeda could be kept in check only if he remained at the helm.
Riyadh and Washington have sought to push for a Gulf-brokered transition plan to ease their former, if inconstant, ally against al Qaeda out of power in the hope of maintaining stability.
But Saleh, despite being badly hurt by a bomb blast in his compound in June, is clinging to power. The 69-year old leader is convalescing in Riyadh but has vowed to return to Yemen.
Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Myra MacDonald