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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Militants continue attacks in Yemen, seizing provincial capital

Ahmed al-Haj Hamza Hendawi
The Washington Post

June 16, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN - Al-Qaeda-linked militants temporarily seized parts of a provincial capital in southern Yemen on Wednesday, the latest in a string of attacks by extremists who are taking advantage of the political turmoil in this impoverished Arab country.

The fighters are expanding their reach after President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for Saudi Arabia to seek treatment for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack this month on his compound in the capital, Sanaa.

The president, who is in his 60s, was quoted by Saudi news media Wednesday as saying that he is "in good health and steadily improving."

As many as 200 militants from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia, whose name means "supporters of Islamic sharia law," launched a surprise dawn attack on Houta, the capital of southern Lahj province, killing one soldier and wounding three before taking control of several neighborhoods, according to security officials.

The fighters held the areas for nearly 12 hours, forcing stores to close and residents to stay home. They left late in the afternoon, taking up new positions in farmlands just south of the city.

It was not clear why they withdrew, but some residents said the incursion appeared to be a show of force by the militants, who since late May have seized and held two cities, including a provincial capital, in the neighboring province of Abyan.

The security officials also said bands of militants drove through some neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden early Wednesday, opening fire on security forces.

The attacks underlined concerns in Washington that Yemen's unrest could fuel connections between militants with ties to al-Qaeda and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden.

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said insurgents in Yemen have been operating more openly and have been able to acquire and hold more territory recently.


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