An al-Qaeda-linked group on Sunday freed 73 Yemeni soldiers it captured during a major assault in the south of the country last month, residents said, after mediation by religious scholars and tribal elders.
Residents of the southern town of Jaar, controlled by militants who call themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), saw the soldiers being let out of the school building where they were being held.
In a statement, the group said Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, had authorized their release after negotiations with tribal elders and religious scholars who visited Jaar, which the militants have renamed “the emirate of Waqar.”
Wuhayshi’s involvement is further evidence of Ansar al-Sharia’s links to Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which CIA director David Petraeus described last year as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad.”
It was not clear what, if anything, the group had been offered in return for the soldiers’ release. Not long after their capture, it threatened to harm the soldiers unless the Yemeni government released Islamist militants from jail.
A Yemeni journalist at the handover said the group had explained they were freeing the soldiers “for the sake of God” and in response to the appeals of the captives’ families and local tribal mediators.
“The militants invited local journalists, tribal mediators, human rights activists and the soldiers’ relatives to their stronghold, Jaar, to attend the ceremony,” said Wajdi al-Shaib. “The soldiers are now with their families on the way to Aden.”
Militants have exploited a year of political upheaval to firm their foothold in Yemen, especially in the south, where they have seized swathes of territory and launched frequent attacks on security forces.
The soldiers were taken hostage by Ansar al-Sharia in one such attack on the city of Zinjibar during which more than 100 other conscripts were killed.