ADEN: Twenty-one separatist fighters and six members of Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch were killed on Tuesday as an attack by the jihadists punctured months of relative peace in the war-torn country, government and security sources said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attacked positions held by the UAE-trained Security Belt group in Abyan province in Yemen’s south, the sources said.
The violence came just days after the jihadist group released a video of a United Nations worker whom it abducted in the same province more than six months ago.
About three hours of fighting “left 21 dead among the (Security Belt), including an officer, and six among the Al Qaeda combatants”, a government official said on condition of anonymity. Two security sources confirmed the death toll.
Yemen has been gripped by conflict since Iran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, triggering a Saudi-led military intervention in support of the beleaguered government the following year.
AQAP and militants loyal to the militant Islamic State group have thrived in the chaos.
The Security Belt, a powerful southern Yemen separatist force, has played a decisive role in the fight against the jihadists, forcing them to retreat from towns into rural areas.
Tuesday’s fighting comes as the Houthis and forces supporting the ousted government observe a shaky ceasefire in the years-long civil war.
Riven by divisions, the groups opposing the Houthis, who originate from the north, include southern separatists who support the re-establishment of South Yemen.
The country was divided into North and South Yemen until reunification in 1990.
Kidnapped UN worker
Underlining Yemen’s parlous security, on Saturday AQAP released a video showing a United Nations worker who was abducted more than six months ago, the SITE Intelligence Group reported.
Five UN staff members were kidnapped in Abyan in February while returning to the port city of Aden after a field mission, UN spokesperson Eri Kaneko said at the time.
In Saturday’s video message, apparently recorded on Aug 9, Akam Sofyol Anam urges “the UN, the international community, the humanitarian organisations, to please come forward… and meet the demands of my captors”, without outlining the demands.
Formed in a merger of Al Qaeda’s Yemen and Saudi branches, AQAP has carried out attacks on both rebel and government targets in Yemen as well as foreigners.
It has been accused of plotting attacks beyond the Middle East and its leaders have been targeted by a US drone war for more than two decades, although the number of strikes has dropped off in recent years.
Yemen’s UN-brokered ceasefire has drastically reduced fighting since the truce began in April, but outbreaks of violence continue.