SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni troops seized two al-Qaida strongholds in the country's south after a days-long offensive that left dozens of suspected militants and troops dead, the country's Defense Ministry said Tuesday.
The troops, backed by pro-government tribesmen, swept through the strongholds in the Mahfad region, the ministry said in a statement. The area saw heavy airstrikes over the past weeks on a suspected major al-Qaida base that included a training grounds and weapons storehouses, tucked deep into the rugged mountains between Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
The ministry said that militants bombed a government complex before they fled the center of the district at dawn, but did not provide details.
Later on the day, the ministry said that its forces have controlled for the first time in years another hideout of al-Qaida in district of Haban and Qarn al-Sawad in the mountains of Shabwa. The takeover of Haban comes after days of heavy bombardment and clashes, but the number of casualties was not immediately known.
Along with the offensive, the military is reaching out to tribes in the areas of Abyan and Shabwa to expel al-Qaida militants.
According to local officials and tribesmen, the military warned tribal leaders against sheltering al-Qaida militants and said it was prepared to stop its offensive if they convince tribe members affiliated to al-Qaida to hand over their arms or leave. The officials said that the military plans to redeploy its forces to have a permanent force in these places to prevent al-Qaida militants from making a comeback. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The ministry also said in its statement that forces killed three wanted al-Qaida figures. One of them, nicknamed Picasso, was notorious for killing and mutilating his victims, usually those suspected to be informing police on militants' whereabouts, the ministry said, without providing his real name. Two others are suspected al-Qaida operatives named Nasser Atef al-Makni and his brother Ahmed.
Yemen has been struggling for years with al-Qaida's branch here, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. During a year-long uprising in 2011 that eventually overthrew longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, al-Qaida militants seized control of several towns and districts in the south, exploiting the security vacuum. They were driven out a year later by Yemeni forces backed by U.S. airstrikes.