Tanks surround southern Yemeni city during search for al Qa'eda militants

More than 10,000 civilians flee as army lays siege to Hawta.

SANA'A // The military's siege of the southern city of Hawta as it hunts down suspected al Qa'eda militants has resulted in what one official calls "terrible" humanitarian conditions. "The deadly clashes have pushed between 10,000 and 15,000 civilians to flee their houses in the city of Hawta," Abdullah Attiq Baoudah, the general director of the Maifaa district in Shabwa province, said in a telephone interview. Maifaa district includes Hatwa.

"The people have escaped to find shelter in the surrounding villages and schools, while some have managed to travel to their relatives in neighbouring cities like Aden and Mukalla," he said. "Some of the citizens are still held inside the city while mediation efforts to reach a ceasefire have failed and clashes continue." He added that the displaced people are in need for food, shelter and medicine.

The International Commission for the Red Cross (ICRC) said it is aware of the problems. "We are trying to see how many people have fled and where to," said Rabab al Rifai, the communications officer of the ICRC office in Sana'a. Mr Baoudah estimated there are more than 100 al Qa'eda fighters in the area. The clashes, which began Saturday, have left seven soldiers dead and 10 wounded; three militants were killed in the clashes, according to local and government officials.

"The city is surrounded by tanks and we are concerned that storming the city will leave mass destruction as houses are made up from mud," Mr Baoudah said. Local sources said that government troops includuing members from the anti-terrorism forces had been deployed to the area. Shabwa is the home province and suspected hiding place of the Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki, a US-citizen who is wanted by Washington for his links to al Qa'eda.

The terrorist group has also claimed a number of attacks on the security and intelligence personnel during the past few months. The latest claim was made on Monday when the group said it kidnapped Ali al Hosam, the deputy head of intelligence in the northern province of Sa'ada in August, demanding the release of two imprisoned militants. @Email:malqadhi@thenational.ae