JAAR, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni government forces are poised to capture a southern coastal town from al Qaeda-linked insurgents who fled there after the army drove them out of two other cities, Yemen’s defense minister said on Wednesday.
But Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda offshoot, vowed to spread the war across Yemen after it was forced to abandon the strongholds of Zinjibar and Jaar on Tuesday, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors militant websites.
Yemeni Defence Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, touring the ruined city of Zinjibar said getting al Qaeda out of the south was a priority for the Yemeni army.
Asked about the coastal city of Shaqra, where militants fled after quitting Zinjibar and Jaar, the minister said:
“It will be over within hours.”
Emboldened by waning government control over the impoverished country during last year’s popular protests that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militants seized Jaar in March 2011, before occupying Zinjibar and Shaqra.
U.S. officials say President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi - who came to power in February after Saleh signed a power transfer deal brokered by Gulf states - is more cooperative in the fight against Islamist militancy than his predecessor.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is believed to be the most active branch of the global network and has plotted a number of botched attempts against U.S. targets.
The group threatened to spread the fight all over Yemen.
“The battle had been far away from your palaces and administration, but you believed the falsehoods of American policy, and their money has made you arrogant,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamist websites.
“As for us, this has been a year of preparation for the leaders, experts, and martyrdom-seekers, so await the battle in your palaces. The Americans will not help you any longer,” it added.
The recapture of Jaar and Zinjibar was the army’s most significant victory against the militants in more than a year of political turmoil that has taken Yemen to the brink of civil war and fuelled fears about al Qaeda’s presence in a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Some residents of the two wrecked cities began to return to their homes on Wednesday.
Jaar residents, many of whom stayed throughout the fighting that destroyed large parts of the city of some 100,000, said they were awaiting the return of water and electricity services cut off during the offensive.
“The situation is bad. There is no money, no electricity and no water,” one resident who declined to be identified said.
In the town of Azzan, northeast of Shaqra, two airstrikes targeted a building and two vehicles belonging to militants, killing at least 27 fighters, a senior Yemeni official said.
It was not immediately clear if Wednesday’s strikes were carried out by Yemeni warplanes or U.S. drones. One local official in Azzan said at least one strike was by a drone.
Washington has repeatedly used drones to target Yemeni militants in order to try to contain a threat it has been urging the government to take more seriously.
Ansar al-Sharia said in a statement that U.S. drones had launched five attacks in Azzan on Wednesday morning, but denied any of its fighters had been killed or wounded.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Jon Hemming