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UAE-backed forces take Al Qaida Shabwa enclaves

Elite force commander says his troops crossed into mountainous areas in early hours of new offensive

Al Mukalla: Hundreds of Yemeni troops, backed by UAE military advisers and fighter jets, have launched a new offensive against remaining Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants in the southern province of Shabwa, almost a week after other troops pushed the militants from a rugged valley in the neighbouring province of Hadramout.

The offensive, codenamed ‘Operation Decisive Sword’, involves a large number of soldiers. The aim of the unprecedented incursion into scattered regions in Al Sayed district is to expel AQAP militants who have long used the areas to hide, and stage attacks against government targets.

Mohammad Salem Al Qumishi, commander of the Shabwani Elite Forces, told Gulf News by telephone that his troops managed to cross into the mountainous areas in Al Sayed in the early hours of the offensive and the militants did not put up a fight. “This is the second of phase of a larger offensive aimed at cleansing Shabwa from AQAP terrorists,” Al Qumishi said, adding that his forces seized control of Yashbum valley, a key AQAP training site, and Al Mousena, another AQAP gathering point. Al Qumishi said the forces pushed into rugged areas in Al Sayed to prevent AQAP militants fleeing rural strongholds in Hadramout from regrouping or hiding there. “We have received orders from the commander of 2nd Military Region in Hadramout to start the offensive today to cut off AQAP’s major conduit through Al Sayed mountains,” Al Qumishi said. The UAE-backed forces recently seized control of Al Sayed’s residential areas.

Last week, the governor of Hadramout, Major General Faraj Salmeen Al Bahasani, announced the eviction of AQAP militants from Al Mousaini valley, west of the city of Al Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout, an area that has long been seen as an AQAP stronghold, from which the group plot attacks and recruit new fighters.

Shabwa’s Al Sayed district is the ancestral home of Anwar Al Awlaki, an American cleric who was killed in a US drone strike in 2011. AQAP militants are said to be storing their arsenal of heavy weapons they looted from the army in 2015 in Al Sayed’s mountains. “We are the first military forces to have crossed into Al Sayed for 20 years,” Al Qumishi said. The military commander attributed rapid advances of his forces to “massive” military support from the UAE Armed Forces, who formed and trained the Shabwani Elite Forces. “We feel thankful to the UAE military for their massive assistance to our forces,” Al Qumishi said, adding that his troops were put on a high alert to foil expected AQAP counterattacks.

Hundreds of soldiers from the Shabwani unit recently graduated from a military camp in Hadramout, where they were trained by UAE officers. Al Qumishi said AQAP militants who fled their former hideouts in Al Sayed have taken refugee in the provinces of Marib and Baydha, and his forces will advance to small districts that have a light AQAP presence. AQAP has suffered major defeats since early 2016, when thousands of UAE-backed troops expelled it from key strongholds in southern Yemen, such as Al Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city.

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