Yemen begins southern offensive against AQAP
Yemeni media reported yesterday that the country's military is preparing for a new offensive against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the heels of the three successful US drone strikes last week that killed over 60 militants from the terrorist organization. Yemeni Popular Committees, local armed resistance groups who played a large role alongside the military in pushing out al Qaeda and its local affiliate Ansar al Shariah from Abyan province in 2011, claimed yesterday that this new offensive comes in response to information they received suggesting an AQAP attempt to filter into Lawdar district in Abyan and seize control of it.
A southern commander, Mahmoud al Sabihi, reportedly arrived in Lawdar yesterday in order to lead the offensive against al Qaeda, which is to be supervised by the Yemeni Minister of Defense, Mohammad Nasser Ahmad. Al Sabihi's reception in Lawdar seemed to portend local support for the offensive, as he was greeted by leaders of the Popular Committees and the military commander of Yemeni forces in Abyan, Haydara Lahatal.
Sources within the Popular Committees said that forces from the 115th Infantry Brigade, the 2nd Mountain Patrol Infantry Brigade stationed in Belhaf, and from another brigade stationed in Ahwar would participate in the offensive. These forces had already positioned themselves in line with the military plan by midday, according to local sources.
Reports from later in the day claimed that the military has begun a forceful push towards the al Mahfad region, the location of the powerful April 20 strike. Local Yemeni news sources reported that a significant military force, including bulldozers, armored vehicles, military teams, and Defense Ministry and military soldiers seeks to return the lawless border region that has not been under Sana'a's control for over four years to the central government's jurisdiction. Shabwa and Abyan provinces, which surround the al Mahfad district, were largely under AQAP control from May 2011 till May 2012 when a Yemeni military offensive pushed AQAP militants underground. That offensive also spurred AQAP to move into the lawless border region in al Mahfad and establish a stronghold there as early as June 2012.
A security source told Yemeni news outlets that the offensive targeting al Mahfad is part of a massive government and military mobilization that would include spreading more than 1,500 soldiers across Shabwa and Abyan provinces.
There seem to be no signs of AQAP's retreat from the Abyan/Shabwa area following the three deadly drone strikes last week, the most prominent of which hit an AQAP training camp along the mountainous Abyan-Shabwa border. A tribal leader in Yemen's southern provinces told a Kuwaiti news source that following last week's strikes, more than 200 AQAP militants have resurfaced in the Shabwa-Abyan border region. AQAP militants were reported to have seized hospitals in Shabwa last week, particularly in Azzan, in order to treat those wounded in the barrage of strikes. Reports from those hospitals have confirmed that AQAP fighters brought their own doctors, some of whom were non-Arab, to the hospitals. Doctors from a hospital in Azzan reported that some of their patients spent a night side by side with wounded al Qaeda fighters.