ADEN, Yemen — The army on Sunday killed 40 Al-Qaeda suspects, mainly foreigners, and wounded dozens of others on day six of a major offensive in southern Yemen, military officials said.
Most of the “terrorists” were killed in Shabwa province during the ongoing operation against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the defense ministry said in text messages sent to journalists.
“The majority of those killed or wounded are Saudis, Afghans, Somalis, Chechens and others,” the official Saba news agency quoted a military source as saying.
On Friday, soldiers backed by warplanes killed five suspected Al-Qaeda militants in the same province.
Residents there told AFP on Sunday of “exceptionally” heavy artillery fire and air raids targeting Al-Qaeda hideouts in the region.
Saba quoted General Ahmed al-Yafie, commander of the Third Military Region, as saying the armed forces were “unprecedentedly ready to face this terrorist organisation.”
“The Al-Qaeda elements will not escape death,” and troops will fight them “until they are uprooted from Yemen, which cannot be a home for terrorism,” he said.
Two insurgents were killed and five captured as they tried to advance towards Ataq, regional capital of Shabwa, while a local Al-Qaeda commander was killed in a smaller operation in the central town of Baida, according to a military source.
Hours before Sunday’s raid, Saba reported that reinforcements had been sent to Shabwa to “deal with Al-Qaeda”.
The offensive began on Tuesday with a setback for the army, when Al-Qaeda ambushed a convoy, killing 15 soldiers and taking 15 more prisoner, three of whom were later executed.
But the army operation has since gathered pace, resulting in the deaths of 70 militants and more than 24 soldiers, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Among the Al-Qaeda fatalities have been two foreign commanders — Abu Islam al-Shishani, who had Chechen links, and Abu Muslim al-Uzbeki, an AQAP leader in Abyan province who hailed from Uzbekistan.
AQAP — a merger of the network’s Yemeni and Saudi branches — has denied President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi’s allegations that 70 percent of its fighters are foreigners.
The franchise has been linked to a number of failed terror plots against the United States, and its leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi recently appeared in a rare video in which he vowed to attack Western “crusaders” wherever they are.
The jihadists took advantage of a 2011 uprising that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power to seize large swathes of southern and eastern Yemen.
The army recaptured several major towns in 2012 but has struggled to reassert control in rural areas, despite the backing of militiamen recruited among local tribes.
The latest government campaign came after a wave of US drone and other air attacks last month on Al-Qaeda bases and training camps killed around 70 militants.
The jihadist group denounced the offensive as a “premeditated military escalation” that came after “the Yemeni defense minister visited Washington to receive the orders of his American masters”.