Qaeda gunmen quit Yemen town under tribal pressure
DEN HUNDREDS of Al Qaeda gunmen bowed to tribal pressure on Wednesday and withdrew from a Yemeni town they had held for nine days after authorities pledged to free 15 militants, tribal sources said.
“They have left the town” of Rada 130 kilometres southeast of Sanaa, one tribal source said hours after a senior military official said mediators had convinced the extremists to withdraw. Some tribal mediators, who have formed a committee of 35 dignitaries from seven different Yemeni cities, told AFP they had warned the militants to leave Rada voluntarily or be forced out.
Usually heavily armed tribes still play a vital role in Yemeni politics and society, joining the army to battle Al- Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over several regions across the south and east. Rada was overrun on January 16, the latest in a series of towns to fall as Al Qaeda takes advantage of a central government weakened by months of protests.
“Tribal mediation carried out by Sheikh Hashed Fadhl al Qawsi succeeded, after three days of talks, to convince the armed Al Qaeda men to leave Rada,” a military official told AFP late on Tuesday.
A local dignitary, Ahmed Kalaz, confirmed the departure of Islamist fighters he described as close to Tarek al Dahab, brother-in-law of the Yemeni-American extremist Anwar al-Awlaqi, who was killed in a US air strike last September. “They’ve retreated to al Manasa,” Dahab’s native village some 30 kilometres to the southeast, Kalaz said.
In exchange, the mediators promised the gunmen that 15 of their fellow militants would be freed and a committee comprising town residents would be formed to replace corrupt officials.
The commission was formed and so far five militants had been released, with the rest to follow in the next two days.
Khaled al Dahab, Tarek’s brother, said their third brother Nabil, a jihadist seized by Syrian authorities as he was returning from Iraq and handed over to Yemen, was among the five freed on Wednesday.
“Five Al Qaeda detainees, among them Nabil, have been released,” Khaled told AFP by telephone. In a statement on an Islamist website, the “Partisans of Sharia” (Islamic Law) militants said that they had agreed to leave in return for these demands being met.
They said they had entered “Rada to reform the situation there by implementing God’s law and removing corruption and the corrupt” officials.
As news of the withdrawal spread, residents took to Rada’s streets in celebration, firing shots in the air.
“Our town is celebrating this event as war and chaos have been avoided,” said one, Faisal al-Riashi, reached by telephone. “Life in Rada is returning to normal and residents have begun removing road blocks, said another resident, Aref al Amri. He added that shops are reopening.
Residents also paraded through Rada carrying banners reading “The farce is over.” Opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who left Yemen on Sunday for the US for medical treatment, accuse him of deliberately handing over cities to Islamists in an attempt to gain Western support for his regime. The strong jihadist presence in Yemen made Saleh a key ally in Washington’s “war on terror” before the Arab Spring uprisings sparked a wave of protests against his regime.