Saudi-led coalition targets al-Qaeda in Yemen
LONDON - Yemeni government forces have clashed with suspected al-Qaeda militants in the port city of Aden, the first time since the start of the one-year war the internationally recognised Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, has targeted the global terrorist network.
Apache helicopters from the Saudi-led coalition targeted armoured vehicles and a government compound under the control of the jihadists in Al-Mansoura district in north Aden on March 12th-13th, witnesses said. Medical officials said 17 suspected militants and one civilian were killed, and 23 civilians and militants were wounded.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been active in Yemen since 2009, when a severe crackdown on al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia led to a merger between both the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the group.
Analysts said the targeting of the terrorist group by the Saudi-led coalition was long overdue.
“You had al-Qaeda’s growth basically continuing unchecked in Yemen,” said Adam Baron, an expert on Yemen and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“There has been a mistake from some quarters labelling this a local issue, but in reality this represents a tremendous threat to the rest of the peninsula and for that matter to the West as well; so in a lot of ways I’m surprised it’s taking this long for the collation to act,” Baron said.
Fighters within the Yemen’s Southern resistance, many of whom were leading militias fighting Houthi rebels, have long complained about the lack of support in the fight against al-Qaeda.
“In every conversation I’ve had with them, they ask why aren’t they helping us against al-Qaeda, why aren’t we getting more help fighting al-Qaeda, but better late than never,” Baron added.
He said it was likely the Saudi-led coalition and the United States would collaborate in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
“US drone strikes against al-Qaeda never stopped and have continued despite the Saudi-led fight against the Houthis. When you have two separate air forces, sharing the same sky over the same country that means cooperation is inevitable, so I would imagine there would be a bit of cooperation between the coalition and the United States on this issue,” Baron said.
In a related development, two Emirati fighter pilots were killed when their jet crashed on a mission targeting the Iran-allied Houthi rebels. The two pilots died when their Mirage jet crashed due to what it described as technical failure, the official Saudi Press Agency said without elaborating further.
Local Yemeni officials said the plane was flying low when it crashed into a mountain after a bombing raid in north-western Aden where Islamist militants are based.
The Emirati jet is the third coalition plane to go down since the start of operations last March. A Bahraini F-16 jet crashed in Saudi Arabia in December of last year, while a Moroccan piloted plane did so in Yemen in May. Both accidents were also blamed on “technical errors”.
The war in Yemen began in March 2015 when an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began air strikes against the Houthis to restore the UN-recognised Yemeni government to power.
More than 6,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and the country is facing a major humanitarian catastrophe.
Last week, in what appeared to be a small diplomatic breakthrough, Saudi Arabia conducted a prisoner exchange with Houthi rebels after a Houthi delegation travelled to the kingdom to discuss a de-escalation of fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Seven Houthi fighters were released in exchange for Saudi Corporal Jaber al-Kaabi.