DUBAI (Reuters) - The Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda said on Monday its attack on a Yemeni army base last month targeted an operations room used by the United States to direct drone strikes against militants, and it threatened more such assaults.
Dozens of militants stormed and captured the headquarters of the Yemeni army’s Second Division in the eastern coastal city of al-Mukalla on September 30 and took some military personnel hostage. Military officials said four Yemeni soldiers were killed and nine wounded in a counter-strike to retake the base.
A Yemeni official denied that the army base contained a joint U.S.-Yemeni operations room, saying its task was to prevent piracy in nearby Arabian Sea lanes.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is regarded by the United States as one of the most active wings of the militant network, posing a serious threat to Western interests including oil tanker traffic.
AQAP said Yemen had turned a number of its military facilities in recent years into “intelligence and operations rooms to direct the war against the Mujahideen (holy fighters) and operate pilotless planes”.
“The Mujahideen have directed a harsh blow to one of these headquarters,” it said in a message posted on Shumukh al-Islam, an Islamist website, referring to the September 30 attack.
“Such joint security targets, which participate with the Americans in their war on the Muslim people, are a legitimate target for our operations, and we will puncture these eyes that the enemy uses.”
It said that dozens of officers were killed in the three-day assault and the operations room was destroyed. AQAP made no mention of any Americans present in the facility and there were no reports of foreigners killed in the attack.
A Yemeni official said the information in the statement were not correct. “The command and control room in Mukalla was equipped and tasked to counter piracy in addition to monitoring and securing shipping routes in the Arabian Sea,” the official, who declined to use his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters.
The United States regularly unleashes drone strikes against AQAP militants in a campaign that has been criticized by rights groups as tantamount to carrying out executions without trial, with civilians often being hit.
Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has angered many compatriots by giving unequivocal support for drone operations, which have increased since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Hadi has also asked Washington to supply drones to the Yemeni armed forces.
The Yemeni army, with U.S. backing, last year drove al Qaeda militants and their allies from some of their south Yemen strongholds. But the jihadists have since regrouped and mounted attacks on government officials and installations.
Militants took advantage of political chaos in Yemen during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 to seize control of some towns in the south of the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
They were subsequently beaten back by Yemeni armed forces, with assistance from the United States, and dispersed into smaller groups spread across the south.
But they have since carried out a series of attacks on important military and civilian targets, killing hundreds of soldiers and some senior officers, including Major General Salem Qatan, commander of the Yemeni army in south Yemen.
Reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Pfeiffer