Yemeni forces launch major assault

More than 1,500 Yemeni troops launched a major offensive yesterday against the southern town of Hota (Huta, Hawta) which they have been besieging since Sunday. Xinhua news agencyquotes a local counter-terrorism official as saying:

"The massive offensive started with ... air raids and a partial drop of paratroopers from the counter-terrorism units behind al-Qaeda militants' lines to tighten the siege and capture key points on the suburb's roads leading into the town ...

"The offensive was designed to firstly bomb al-Qaeda hideouts by aircraft to flush out their snipers and fighters out of crowded houses ..."

Originally, 80-100 militants were said to be holed up in the town, though there are suggestions that their number may have since increased to as many as 300.

AP says the government forces have so far failed to break down the town's defences:

In one attempt, Yemeni troops tried to repel from helicopters into the village but met with fierce resistance, two Hawta residents said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear for their security. They said four soldiers were wounded and were rushed away in ambulances.

In another attempt, six soldiers were wounded by militant sniper fire as they tried to mount barricades put up by the militants on the town's outskirts, local officials said.

Medical officials confirmed that nine soldiers are being treated at the provincial hospital.

A military official said the militants are using sniper fire and land mines to keep the soldiers at bay, forcing the army to adjust its tactics.

The government says security forces have "captured 28 persons of terrorist elements and those suspected of their affiliation with al-Qaeda".

Thousands of civilians have fled the town, though several thousand remain, and the authorities say militants are using them as human shields by preventing them from leaving.

The news reports generally accept the government's claim that it is fighting al-Qaeda in Huta, though Amnesty International is not so sure. In a statement yesterday it said: "Several inhabitants of neighbouring areas have told Amnesty International that the suspected militants are actually armed tribesmen with grievances against the government."

Al-Qaeda is undoubtedly active in the area, but so too are the southern separatists.

In remarks quoted by AFP, Ali Salem al-Baid, one of the exiled southern leaders, described the campaign against the militants in Huta as a bid to secure funding from donors at the international 
Friends of Yemen meeting that is due to be held in New York this Friday:

The campaign is aimed at securing "financial assistance under the pretext of fighting terrorism," Baid said.

The Yemeni government is using al-Qaeda as a pretext to subjugate the south and "silence the voice of the free south and its peaceful independence movement," he said.

"We invite the sponsors and participants from the Friends of Yemen conference to explore the facts for themselves and see the reality of the tragic situation in south Yemen," Baid added.

I don't often agree with al-Baid, but I think he may be right to suggest that the Huta military offensive, and its scale in particular, should be viewed in the context of the New York meeting.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 September 2010.