ADEN - Yemeni troops took control on Saturday of the southeastern town of Azzan, a known Qaeda bastion, after the group’s fighters left it a week ago, an official said.
“Some 60 vehicles of army and security forces have been deployed across central Azzan,” a local government official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that army warplanes were seen flying over the area.
Witnesses confirmed that Azzan, in the southeastern Shabwa province, was finally handed over to the army by a committee of tribal mediators to whom Qaeda fighters had initially passed over control.
State news agency Saba said troops backed by armed militiamen had “claimed a final victory over the Qaeda terrorist network, spreading state control to the city and overthrowing what was named the (Islamic) emirate of Azzan.”
On June 17, Qaeda militants fled from Azzan, the last town in Yemen where they had established total control.
Qaeda had declared an Islamic emirate in the desert town where hundreds of fighters were believed to have sought refuge after fleeing their strongholds in nearby Abyan province.
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, quoted by Saba, hailed “the big victory over Qaeda elements of evil and terrorism” and urged Yemenis “to join ranks in the face of terrorism and its elements and to confront their criminal plots.”
Taking advantage of a weakening central government control by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year, the militants had overrun most of Abyan, capturing Zinjibar, Jaar, Shuqra and several other villages.
But on May 12, Yemen’s military launched an all-out offensive to recapture the province. The army and local militiamen have succeeded in taking over all of Abyan’s towns except for Mahfad where jihadists still have a strong presence.
Landmines which the jihadists laid in Abyan before fleeing have in the past 10 days killed 27 people in the provincial capital Zinjibar and eight more on the outskirts of the town of Jaar, officials said on Saturday.
“Landmine explosions in Zinjibar have left 27 people dead” since the army, backed by local militiamen, drove out Qaeda militants from the capital on June 13, said Zinjibar deputy mayor Ghassan Sheikh.
He said the army has so far been unable to clear all the landmines, adding that the explosives were sown in most streets of Zinjibar.
“Most of Zinjibar’s residents have been unable to return yet” from the main southern city of Aden to their town which has been totally destroyed by the fighting, he said.
On Friday, the new army commander for southern Yemen, Major-General Naser al-Taheri who replaced General Salem Ali Qoton, assassinated by an Qaeda suicide bomber last Monday, vowed to keep up the fight.
Qoton’s murder will only “make us more determined... to hunt these terrorist groups in their hideouts until the nation is cleansed from their evil,” Saba quoted him as saying.
Qoton, who had led the five-week-long offensive against the jihadists, was killed along with two of his aides when a Somali suicide bomber threw himself on their vehicle in the regional capital Aden.
US officials have repeatedly described the Yemen-based Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the most dangerous of the jihadist network’s worldwide affiliates.