Thousands of people have fled a village in southern Yemen where security forces are laying siege to al-Qaeda militants, a security official said, signaling an escalation in the government’s US-backed campaign to uproot the terror network’s local offshoot.
Government forces have moved into the village of Hawta with tanks and armored vehicles and 90 percent of its residents have fled, Abdullah Baouda, police chief for the surrounding district, said on Monday.
One family fleeing Hawta said forces have shelled the village indiscriminately for the past two days to flush out the militants.
Troops also fired on vehicles of residents fleeing the village and another nearby trouble spot, the city of Lawder, killing two civilians and wounding three others, according local government and medical officials.
Hawta is in Yemen’s mountainous Shabwa Province, one the areas where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken root over the past year and a half, beyond the reach of a weak central government that has little control outside the capital.
The US is deeply concerned about the threat from Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch. The group claimed responsibility for the December attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, linking the plot to Yemen’s cooperation with the US military in strikes on al-Qaeda targets.
The US has shared intelligence and provided financial aid and training to Yemeni forces, generating backlash among Yemenis who feel their government is too closely allied with the US.
Around 120 al-Qaeda militants are believed to be taking refuge in Hawta, the police chief said. Three militants were killed and four were wounded in the fighting, said the provincial governor, Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi. One anti-terrorism officer was injured, he said.
“The siege will remain until those elements hand themselves in and we manage to uproot terrorist groups from the region,” al-Ahmadi said.
For months, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has hammered Yemen’s security forces in attacks on checkpoints and other security outposts.
The group said in an Internet statement on Monday that it abducted a senior security official and demanded the release of two of its imprisoned members within 48 hours. Brigadier General Ali Hossam disappeared on Aug. 26.
Yemen’s government has had trouble gaining control of areas in the south that are under the control of powerful tribes, some sympathetic to al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants roaming the area.