The United States said it was “very concerned” about the latest deadly attack by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen as the country’s new president vowed to pursue the militants linked to the terrorist organization to their last hiding place.
A Pentagon spokesman early Tuesday said that Washington believes the Yemeni government will survive the assault.
More than 110 government soldiers have been killed in fighting after suspected al-Qaeda gunmen attacked military posts in Yemen’s south on Sunday, medical officials in Yemen said.
The militants said they had also captured 70 soldiers in a raid after suicide bomb attacks on two military posts outside the southern city of Zinjibar on Sunday, the most lethal attack since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office last month.
“We view Yemen as a very important partner on counter-terrorism efforts and we’re also very concerned about the clashes that have taken place there, to include AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) advances in certain parts in the country,” press secretary George Little told reporters, referring to al-Qaeda’s branch in the region, according to AFP.
It was vital to maintain military pressure on the al-Qaeda network in Yemen, he said.
“AQAP is a group that has targeted the Yemeni government and Yemeni civilians for quite a long time and it’s important we keep up the pressure on them,” he said.
But Little said the Yemeni government has long faced a challenge from al-Qaeda network and its hold on power was not under serious threat.
“I think it’s important to put this into some context. The Yemeni government has faced challenges in certain parts of the country for some time so I wouldn’t necessarily read anything at this point into the stability of the Yemeni government,” he said.
“We’re going to continue to work with them,” he said.
U.S. officials are closely watching events in Yemen after Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down last week after 33 years as president. The new president, Hadi, pledged to destroy the al-Qaeda militant group in last month’s inauguration speech.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said late Monday the United States “strongly condemns” the attack, in a statement issued by her spokeswoman.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the friends and loved ones of the victims of this heinous attack, which illustrates AQAP’s complete disregard for human life,” Clinton said.
“The United States will continue to support President Hadi and the Yemeni people as they work to realize their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future.”
Earlier, her spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. would “continue to provide security and counterterrorism support to counter the immediate threats of violent extremism as well as to deliver humanitarian, economic and technical support.”
“Yemen has set itself on a two-year democratic transition course. So it's very important that we do what we can to support Yemen in maintaining security and stability during this period,” Nuland said.
Yemen’s local al-Qaeda branch, the self-proclaimed Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), has exploited the decline in central government control that accompanied anti-Saleh protests that eventually forced him to cede power.
In recent years, the U.S. Defense Department has provided hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of equipment and training designed to help Yemen’s special forces counter al-Qaeda.
The equipment has included aircraft, helicopters with night-vision cameras, sniper rifles, secure radios and bullet-proof jackets, according to the Congressional Research Service, a research arm of the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s new president vowed on Monday to pursue militants linked to al-Qaeda to their last hiding place.
On Monday, militants from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia paraded military hardware seized in the attacks.
Residents said the militants extolled their “victory” by megaphone in the streets of their stronghold of Jaar, 15 km (10 miles) north of Abyan’s provincial capital of Zinjibar, according to Reuters.
At least 20 militants also died in the fighting.
Zinjibar has been the site of regular clashes between the army and Islamist fighters, despite government claims to have “liberated” the city from militants last September.
Last week Ansar al-Sharia said it would unleash a torrent of attacks unless the army pulled its forces from Zinjibar.
The army said it had sent reinforcements to the area from the southern city of Aden on Sunday and beat the militants back.
Sunday’s attack was the second in as many days on military targets in the south, and one of at least five the group has claimed since Hadi was sworn in on Feb. 25.