A senior aide to U.S. President Barack Obama held talks in Sana’a on Sunday with Yemen’s new leader, as efforts by the Yemeni army backed by American drones to crush an al-Qaeda militancy intensified.
Discussions between John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism aide, and President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi revolved around “combatting terrorism” and attempts by Yemen’s army to crush the local branch of al-Qaeda, state news agency Saba reported.
In a brief statement, the U.S. embassy in Yemen said Brennan had “conveyed President Obama’s strong commitment to support Yemen as it continues to implement its political agreement and prepares for a comprehensive national dialogue,” according to Reuters.
Mohammed al-Basha, a Washington-based Yemeni government spokesman, said earlier that Brennan had flown into Yemen “to reiterate holistic U.S. support to Yemen not only in the field of counter-terrorism but also by providing assistance to help Yemen overcome its many other economic and security challenges.”
The talks came as Yemeni forces on Sunday pressed a multi-pronged assault launched the previous day aimed at recapturing the al-Qaeda-held southern city of Zinjibar.
The battles against the militants were being carried out with “U.S. logistical support,” a Yemeni military official told AFP a day after U.S. drones killed 12 suspected militants in two separate attacks east of the capital Sana’a.
In a message to Obama, Hadi told Brennan that “hunting terrorists is an irreversible decision and they will be pursued until these regions are cleansed of their presence.”
According to the Yemeni military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, 12 soldiers have been killed since the all-out operation against al-Qaeda was launched around Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, on Saturday, AFP reported.
“The fighting continues and the army is advancing towards Zinjibar,” the official said, adding that government forces reached the Shaddad Fort, around three kilometers (less than two miles) east of Zinjibar, and Zinjibar Bridge, just one kilometer south of the city.
Another military official said air raids on Sunday targeted Zinjibar and the neighboring town of Jaar, while artillery pounded the city.
The “wide offensive” began from three sides and was supported by the air force and the navy, a military official had said on Saturday, adding that Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed was overseeing the operation.
Six fighters of the al-Qaeda-linked Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), were killed in the attack on Zinjibar, said a tribal source in Jaar, to where the gunmen evacuate their casualties.
Air strikes on Saturday also hit Jaar, killing three al-Qaeda gunmen and a civilian, and wounding three civilians, according to tribal sources.
After the air raids, military units attacked Jaar from the west, reaching the outskirts of the town.
The militants took advantage of a central government weakened by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising to overrun Zinjibar in May last year. They also control Jaar and other parts of the province.
Hadi, who was elected president for an interim two-year term in a single candidate vote in late February, has pledged to rid Yemen of the extremist group.
In the first of Saturday’s air strikes, a drone targeted a vehicle carrying militants on the road linking Marib to Shabwa, killing seven, a tribal chief said.
In the second attack, five militants were killed when two rockets hit two cars transporting them near the village of al-Hosoon, outside Marib, a tribal chief and witnesses said.
Attacks on al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces and suspected U.S. drones have intensified, including an air raid in eastern Yemen a week ago that killed jihadist network leader Fahd al-Quso, wanted by Washington in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor.
Quso’s name figured on an FBI list of most wanted terrorists, along with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
U.S. media reported that a Saudi spy, reportedly a “mole” or “double agent,” spent weeks with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and garnered sensitive information that allowed the CIA to launch the drone strike against Quso.
A senior U.S. official told the New York Times the spy had revealed plans by AQAP to blow up a U.S. airliner using a bomb sewn into “custom fit” underwear that would have been difficult to detect even in a pat-down at an airport.