SANA'A // While peace talks with rebels in the north finally got underway this week, in the south a string of violent attacks and clashes between militants and government forces left a trail of death. Following six days of fierce fighting, the interior ministry announced on Wednesday that the Lawdar district in Abyan province had been cleared of al Qa'eda operatives. The defence ministry claimed secessionists were fighting alongside the Islamist extremists during the clashes, repeating government claims that the two groups have been working together.
But mixing together the war against al Qa'eda and the crackdown on those calling for a separate southern state could lead to "grave consequences" for the Yemeni government, experts said. Ahmed al Zurqah, an independent analyst in Sana'a, said the regime's blurring the lines between the extremists and the secessionists would only serve al Qa'eda. "The government is using the fight on terrorism to crack down on southern movement activists as we hear from local citizens and politicians in the south. There will be grave consequences for this mistake, which will serve the interests of al Qa'eda and boosts its presence there," said Mr al Zurqah.
By conflating the two, the government risks pushing them closer together by providing a common enemy, he added. The defence ministry said 12 suspected al Qa'eda militants were killed during the fighting that erupted after the rebels killed 11 soldiers in an ambush at a market in Lawdar. Local sources said more than 20 security and army personnel and three civilians were killed and dozens wounded.
The operation comes after a string of ambushes and attacks on the security and intelligence personnel in Abyan and other southern cities, some of which al Qa'eda claimed responsibility for. The south, which united with the north in 1990, has also seen frequent anti-government protests in recent years. Southerners complain of discrimination by the Sana'a government over the allocation of resources, mainly since the 1994 civil war in which the south was defeated.
The government has repeatedly blamed southern movement activists for some of this year's violent attacks, claims denied by the secessionist leaders who insist their movement is peaceful. They also deny that they have anything to do with al Qa'eda. Southern exiled leaders voiced concerns that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, is now using the fight against al Qa'eda to attack the southern movement activists and the south at large.
Ali Salem al Baid, a prominent Germany-based southern Yemeni leader and former vice president who fled after the south was defeated in the 1994 civil war, condemned the government's actions in the south and appealed to the Arab League and the United Nations to "immediately intervene to investigate the Sana'a regime's claims and violations". He was refering to the military's recent operations in Lawdar, which the southern movement claims targeted civilians.
"The military campaign in Lawdar is aimed against our people's resistance in the south," said Mr al Baid, who led the South to unity with the north in 1990 and then to civil war in 1994. The government's allegations that it is fighting al Qa'eda are "an attempt to cover up the massacres committed against our people", he said in a statement. Other exiled southern leaders accused the government on Tuesday of sending al Qa'eda militants to the south to justify its attack on the "peaceful movement of the southern people".
The sweeping resentment and frustration with the government in the south serve al Qa'eda because it gives the group the kind of restless environment that helps it to operate, said Saeed Obaid al Jemhi, the director of the al Jemhi Centre for Studies and Research, a Sana'a-based think tank specialising in the study of al Qa'eda and terrorism. "Al Qa'eda is benefiting from the unrest in the south. There is a broad discontent in the restive provinces of Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa and Dhal'e," Mr al Jemhi said. He predicted more attacks by al Qa'eda in the coming weeks.
The US is considering adding the CIA's armed Predator drones to the fight against al Qa'eda in Yemen, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. In response, a Yemeni security official said yesterday that Yemeni forces do not need foreign parties to take the lead in the fight against al Qa'eda. Earlier this week, Amnesty International released a report which said US forces appeared to have collaborated with Yemen in attacks on militants that violated international law.
The human rights watchdog said that aerial bombings of al Qa'eda suspects were extrajudicial killings, and urged the US to clarify the involvement of its forces. Yemen's ministry of human rights said the Amnesty report was based on "false information". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org