Hundreds of Yemeni Troops Defect to Rebels

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mohammed Mokhashaf and Mohamed Sudam

2011-06-28T165143Z_1312527772_GM1E76T02HG01_RTRMADP_3_YEMEN

An anti-government protester with his face painted in the colours of Yemen’s flag shouts as others chew qat during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa June 28, 2011. The words painted on the protester’s chest read as “Uncover chests”.

REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

ADEN/SANAA (Reuters) – At least 26 Yemeni government soldiers and 17 militants linked to al Qaeda were killed on Wednesday in heavy fighting for control of a stadium near the southern city of Zinjibar, officials said.

The military setback, following reports that 300 of his soldiers had defected to the opposition, was another blow to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as recovers in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in an attack on his palace in early June.

Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a neighbor of the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, has been shaken by months of protests against Saleh’s three-decade rule, a resurgent wing of al Qaeda and a separatist rebellion in the south.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear that al Qaeda may use the chaos to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Yemeni officials said the militants seized control of the stadium from government forces, who have been using the facility — built recently to host a regional football tournament — to support troops fighting to dislodge the militants from Zinjibar.

An official said losing the stadium, located near a military base from which government forces had been launching attacks on Zinjibar, exposed a military base that had been used to launch attacks on the militants in Zinjibar. A counter offensive to retake the position was in progress, he said.

“The militant control of the field will leave the back of the camp from the east exposed,” the official said.

Yemeni officials had been reporting successes against the estimated 300 militants who seized control of Zinjibar in May in the midst of a groundswell of popular protests against the nearly 33-year autocratic rule of Saleh.

His opponents say his forces handed over the city to the militants to bolster his argument that his departure would lead to an Islamist takeover of the Arabian Peninsula state.

Yemeni air force planes had killed at least 10 gunmen in attacks on Zinjibar earlier on Wednesday, a local Yemeni official said. One strike mistakenly hit a bus traveling from Zinjibar to Aden, the official added, killing five passengers and wounding 12 other people.

Defection

Earlier in the day, opposition officials reported that more than 300 members of Yemeni security forces, including 150 from the Republican Guards led by Saleh’s son Ahmed, had defected to rebels.

“From the podium of the Square of Change in Sanaa, an announcement has been issued that 150 soldiers from the Republican Guards, 130 Central Security soldiers and 60 policemen have joined the revolt,” an opposition message said.

No government officials were immediately available to comment on the report.

If confirmed, the mutinies would be a serious reverse for Saleh, who has spent the past three weeks receiving medical treatment in Riyadh for wounds suffered in the June 3 attack.

The defections are the latest in a series by security forces since the anti-Saleh uprising began in February. Most prominent was the defection in March of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen, who has since sent in his troops to guard protesters in Sanaa.

The protests have culminated in battles between Saleh loyalists and gunmen from the powerful Hashed tribal federation in Sanaa that brought the country to the verge of civil war.

Months of unrest have cost Yemen $4 billion, a senior Yemeni official said on Wednesday, adding the Arab state was in talks with potential donors to help plug a gap of $1.5 billion in government commitments for projects funded by Sanaa.

“We are talking with the IMF, the World Bank and donor countries, whether Gulf Arab states or others. There may be some discussions next week with the IMF,” Abdulla al-Shater, deputy planning and international cooperation minister, told reporters on the sidelines of a financial conference in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen has been largely quiet with a ceasefire in place since Saleh was injured in the attack, which investigators say was caused by explosives planted in the palace mosque where he and several senior government officials were praying

Saleh, 69, who has not been seen in public since the attack, has resisted pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to hand over power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, under a Gulf nations’ initiative to end the crisis.

Hadi has been running the country in Saleh’s absence, but the opposition wants the president to officially hand over power to him to pave the way for new elections.

Officials have said the president will soon make his first public appearance since the attack with a recorded message to be broadcast on Yemeni state television.

Officer Killed

In further violence, a bomb killed a colonel when it exploded in his car on Tuesday night in the port city of Aden, a security source said on Wednesday.

The source said that Colonel Khaled al-Yafi’i was the commander of a military outpost guarding the Aden Free Zone business park’s entrance.

The outpost was targeted by a car bomb on Friday that killed four soldiers and a civilian and injured 16 other people.

No one has claimed responsibility for the colonel’s killing, but Islamist militants affiliated with al Qaeda are active in southern Yemen.

13-27

Yemen Celebrates as Saleh Flees for Treatment, But Will He Be Back?

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jason Ditz

2011-06-08T105203Z_1808189574_GM1E7681GKE01_RTRMADP_3_YEMEN

Workers fix an electricity cable damaged during recent clashes between police and tribesmen loyal to the tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar in Sanaa June 8, 2011.

REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen erupted in celebration today over the news that long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh had fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Saleh’s compound was attacked on Friday, and despite claims he only sustained “minor” injuries he needed surgery.

For protesters this was the culmination of months of rallies demanding Saleh’s ouster and free elections. In the interim Major General Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi would be serving as president, but it seemed a big victory.

But the Saleh government certainly doesn’t see things that way, and despite rushing Saleh to Saudi Arabia for surgery, they still see him as the head of state on little more than an unplanned vacation.

The protesters clearly don’t want him back, and are promising to do everything they can to prevent his return. Still, the apparent ouster of Saleh isn’t nearly so straightforward as it seems on the surface, and it is unclear if the situation will be resolved in any obvious manner soon.

13-24

In Yemen, Locals Worry About Obama Policy on Al-Qaeda

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Michael Horton, The Christian Science Monitor

78244074WM004_Supreme_Court
Yemeni family. (Photo: Richard Messenger / Flickr)

From smoky halls to the rugged mountains of Yemen, locals are worried that their country – threatened more by poverty and water shortages than terrorism, they say – could turn into another Afghanistan.

Sanaa, Yemen – Amid an intensifying US effort to curb Al Qaeda activity in Yemen, locals in this impoverished country are worried that a focus on military aid alone could backfire – spawning a more robust militant movement and potentially drawing the US into an Afghanistan-like war.

In a smoke-filled hall in the capital of Sanaa, where men gather to chew the mildly intoxicating leaves of the qat tree and smoke water pipes, most of the talk is about Al-Qaeda and American intentions in Yemen.

“By God, they want to turn this country into Afghanistan,” declares Mohammad al-Jaffi, a young man who says he fled the Arhab area, a mountainous region just north of Sanaa, after a recent attack on a suspected Al Qaeda hideout. On Monday, the government said it killed two Al Qaeda members in the Arhab region.

“We are not radicals here,” Mr. Jaffi adds, his cheek bulging with the pulpy green leaves that strict Salafis — the Muslim sect that Al Qaeda members belong to — consider forbidden. Holding up a qat branch, he yells, “Look at this. We all chew this here – in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis would kill us for chewing qat.”

But US and other foreign diplomats are clearly concerned. France, Germany, and Japan all closed their embassies Monday, following US and British closures the previous day, amid reports that a significant amount of explosives had gone missing from the Yemeni army.

“Exclusive Focus on Al Qaeda a Mistake”

With the reported surge in Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, the Obama administration has reiterated its “partnership” with the increasingly vulnerable regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who faces a rebellion in the north and secessionists in the south. Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced on Jan. 1 that the US would double military aid to Yemen after allocating a reported $70 million in 2009.

It has been widely reported that the US is also providing the Yemeni government with intelligence and military trainers. Britain, meanwhile, has announced that it will fund an antiterror police force. Such a sole focus on suspected terrorism is seen as a mistake by some experts as well as locals.

“I think an exclusive focus on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of every other threat in Yemen is a mistake,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton PhD candidate who was recently in Yemen for his research on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Viewing this threat only through the prism of Al Qaeda induces exactly the kind of result the US is hoping to avoid.”

Locals in two provinces often cited as Al Qaeda strongholds, Al-Jawf and Marib, are more concerned with severe poverty – an issue they say the central government has done little to alleviate.

“This government does not care about us. Everything we have, we have to fight for – to get money for a school or medicine we have to block the road. This is all they listen to,” says Ahmad al-Nasri. “By God the tribe is all we have, it is what protects us.”

Mr. Johnsen says that development aid is “crucial” in Marib and Al-Jawf, but disputes the popular depiction of Yemen as a place with large areas that are totally ungovernable.

“The government doesn’t appear to be able to constantly control these areas,” he acknowledges, citing recent flare-ups between tribal leaders and the government. “But the image of Yemen being a Wild West … is not necessarily accurate.”

Yemeni government offices in Sanaa were closed and the Yemeni embassy in Washington was unable to comment before press time.

Water Shortages

A potentially greater destabilizing influence than militancy in Yemen is water shortages, which are already the root of a large percentage of the inter-tribal fighting that plagues the country.

The UN has ranked Yemen as one of the most water-scarce countries, and one local geology professor has estimated that Sanaa’s wells will go dry by 2015 at current usage rates. The country is in desperate need of investment in new drip irrigation systems and water conservation measures.

“Look at these apricot trees,” says Mohammad Faris, who owns an orchard on the outskirts of Sanaa that once flourished. “Half of them are dead from lack of water.”

“We don’t need more guns in this country,” declares Mr. Faris as he stands among the parched remains of what used to be fertile ground. “This village needs a new water pump and we need new trees that drink less water.”

Increased Sympathy for Al Qaeda?

Many locals emphasize that the country’s primary need is development aid, which has in the past been hampered by international concerns about government corruption. But some say they’re ready to fight if the US comes – a prospect that as yet looks unlikely, though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut recently suggested that without preemptive action a future war may occur.

“We have a long history of fighting invaders here,” says Ismail Hadi, a village elder in the rugged mountainous province of Hajjah, not far from the sectarian war being fought against Houthi rebels. As he looks out over his terraces of qat trees that cascade down towards a deep canyon, he adds, “We fought the Turks, we fought the Egyptians, God willing we will fight the Americans when they come.”

Back at the Sanaa qat hall, Uithman al- Ansi echoes that sentiment.

“If the Americans want a fight they will get it,” says Mr. Ansi as he grabs the hilt of his jambiya, the traditional dagger carried by many men here. Another man who says he is from Marib, one of the two frequently cited Al Qaeda strongholds, suggests that US attacks or support for attacks on suspected militants could increase the number of Al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen.

“The Americans don’t know our customs,” says the man. “When they attacked al-Harithi [a suspected Al-Qaeda member who was targeted by a US drone in November 2002] on our lands, his people became our guests. We have long memories.”

Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Boston.

12-2

Is Yemen the New Hot Spot for Terrorism Training?

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Q&A, Aaron Glantz

Editor’s Note: Reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, was trained in Yemen have raised the specter of further U.S. military involvement in that country. To get a better sense of what’s going on in Yemen, NAM editor Aaron Glantz spoke with Jillian Schwedler, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

2010-01-06T200542Z_440314731_GM1E6170BC301_RTRMADP_3_YEMEN-QAEDA

A security personnel stands behind a machinegun installed on a vehicle in Sanaa January 6, 2010. Yemeni forces surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday and captured three militants wounded in a raid, security sources said. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.                                

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

What was your first reaction when you heard that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen?

Yemen has fairly porous borders and a lot of people are in and out of there. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s not like going to a camp in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have the same meaning. I mean, you go to a camp in Afghanistan, you’re pretty much going for one reason. It’s not the same as Yemen.

It seems like in the popular discussion, Yemen is becoming associated with fundamentalist clerics and terrorism.

There are definitely a lot of extremists there, but I think the bigger framework to think about Yemen is not as a hotbed of radicalism and terror but as a state where the government does not control all of the land. They’ve been fighting a significant insurgency in the North for six years now and there’s a separatist group in the South that’s in an armed conflict. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are 60 million weapons outside of government hands in Yemen. And that’s in a country of 20 million people. So it’s a highly-armed, fragmented society and the government hasn’t really had control over the entire country for some time, if ever. So certainly there’s extremism there, but there’s a lot of stuff going on that the government isn’t really in control of.

So who is in the leadership of the government of Yemen?

The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is essentially a central government, but there are many parts of the country that are not under the central government. There are armed areas that the government doesn’t police and doesn’t have anything to do with, except to offer very limited services. And we’re talking about big chunks of the country in the North and the East particularly. It’s not one little enclave.

And a huge part of the border with Saudi Arabia is not even defined because it’s a desert. There are not a lot of people there but there are chunks of the country that are frontier-land kind of areas where people move between those two states.

Yemen was two countries during the Cold War.

Even calling it two countries becomes sort of a fiction. For years, it was just sort of a bunch of enclaves including the British colony that was there for nearly 100 years in the South, various tribal governments, there was a Northern government. But from the ‘60s, you had two states, a Northern state which was the Yemen Arab Republic, and the Southern state which was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was a Marxist, Soviet outpost. And so when the Soviet Union fell in 1989, they lost all their funding and then North Yemen was never particularly strong, and so the two decided that they would unite, which they did and initially had democratic elections in which nobody won a majority.

Northern loyalists were assassinating socialists in the South and the unification never really went forward. They unified the country formally, but former governments maintained their owned armies. That culminated in a civil war in 1994 that lasted two months. And the North defeated the South and has been in control ever since under the leadership of the same president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

So it’s really become an Egypt-style government where there’s a president who pretends to be elected and everyone else pretends to have candidates.

So during all this time, what has the U.S. government’s role been?

Well, right after Yemen unified in May 1990, Yemen had the unfortunate opportunity to have a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. So they had the seat during the first Gulf War in 1991 and they abstained from that Security Council vote. They did not vote for the coalition in 1990 and they did not vote against it; they abstained. So the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all punished Yemen by unilaterally cutting all aid to the country. So it was a newly-unified country that had a tremendous amount of aid cut. Millions of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all deported and that had a devastating affect on the economy in Yemen.

But then relations gradually improved, with the U.S. not really having an interest in Yemen. Then, with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and subsequent events, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh has been working very closely with the U.S. government because in some ways these Islamists are threatening to him as well. That said, there’s an Islamist party that’s closely aligned with the regime. So while the government is working with the U.S. to battle extremists, at the same time he’s playing this delicate balancing act that includes allying himself with extremists.

So basically, he’s allying himself with the United States in the war on terror, and with the people who are opposing that at the same time.

Exactly. And I don’t think he’s that brilliant as a politician. It’s just luck that it’s all held together at this point. It’s surprising to me that he’s pulling it off. A lot of people think it could get really bad there really quick.

Already, the Fullbright program has been suspended. People aren’t going there to study or do research. It’s really not safe.

So when you’re watching the news right now, what are you looking for? What are you looking for in these reports that will help you decide what’s going on?

In so much of what’s coming through, I hear mistakes in reports that frustrate me. What I want to know is: Are things realigning? Are new people coming on top? I haven’t seen this in the media, but for example: Saudi Arabia would have a clear interest in Yemen not becoming a failed state. So is Saudi Arabia sending more government and trying to bolster them and is that creating more Wahabi influence? Or this: Are you seeing a lot of the tribal sheiks realigning themselves? Because with that many weapons out of government control a few significant shifts in alignment could be game changers. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in, but you don’t tend to see them in media a lot.

Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

12-2