Al-Qaida raids on Yemen army bases leave 78 soldiers dead

Surprise attack in southern Abyan province is latest assault blamed on militants after President Saleh voted out last month

Al-Qaida militants have launched a surprise attack against army bases in southern Yemen, killing 78 soldiers, military officials said.

The scale of Sunday’s attack in Abyan province points to the militants’ combat readiness as they launch more and more attacks in a region that the US considers a key battleground in the war on al-Qaida.

Military officials in Yemen said 28 militants also died in the fighting and scores were wounded on both sides. Medical officials confirmed the latest death toll.

The militants also took another 55 troops hostage during the surprise attack against army bases just outside Abyan’s provincial capital of Zinjibar, military officials said.

The captives were paraded late on Sunday through the streets of Jaar, a nearby town that has been under al-Qaida’s control for nearly a year. Militants seized control of Zinjbar in May and Jaar the previous month as security officials were focused on putting down a rebellion against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh stepped down last month in a US-backed power transfer deal that Washington hoped would allow Yemen’s new leaders to move against al-Qaida. But the fighting highlights the difficulties faced by his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in combating the militant movement and restoring state authority in the lawless south.

The military officials said the militants were able to seize armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, assault rifles and rockets from the stores of an army base they attacked. Some of the heavy weapons were later used against the troops, causing most of the casualties.

A defence ministry statement on Sunday said the fighting began when militants detonated “booby trapped vehicles” at an army base in the region of Koud near Zinjibar. The wording of the statement suggested that the base had been occupied by the militants before army forces regrouped and took it back. The fighting lasted the whole day, only stopping by sunset.

Meanwhile, Hadi announced during a meeting with leaders of Yemen’s political parties that fighting al-Qaida and restoring security in the impoverished Arab nation were among his top priorities.

During his more than 30 years in power, Saleh tolerated radical Islamic groups as part of a delicate balancing act that kept at bay threats to his authority in the fractured nation.

There has been a surge in attacks blamed on al-Qaida after Hadi’s inauguration.

Sunday’s fighting followed the dismissal last week by Hadi’s government of the military commander of the southern region, to which Abyan belongs, along with other security officials from the province. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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