ADEN, (Reuters) – Yemeni forces backed by armed tribesmen launch-ed an offensive to retake Zinjibar, capital of southern Abyan province, officials said yesterday, after months of fighting with Islamist militants who seized the city.
Dozens have been killed and some 54,000 civilians have fled Abyan, which has descended into daily bloodshed as the army confronts militants the government says have ties to al Qaeda.
The region lies east of the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
After weeks of pleas for support from a besieged military brigade near Zinjibar, the government sent the first reinforcements on Saturday, aiming to flush militants out of the seaside city.
“The head of the Defence Ministry sent reinforcements including tanks, rocket launchers and 500 extra soldiers,” a local official said.
“These forces began attacking (the city) backed by heavy tank shelling and rocket attacks from naval ships in order to liberate the 25th Brigade just outside Zinjibar and under siege for over a month.”
Residents said dozens were hurt on both sides in street fighting, after troops and tribesmen entered the city from the east.
A local official said three militant leaders were killed, including Nasser al-Maraji, whom he identified as a prominent local Islamist leader.
While unrest mounts in Abyan, mass protests demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office have entered their sixth month, paralysing several cities and pushing the country into political limbo.
Yesterday, troops loyal to Saleh opened fire to disperse a protest march in the Red Sea port city of Hudaida, residents said. A hospital official said about 50 people were injured.