SANAA — Hundreds of armed men suspected of belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have seized the coastal city of Zinjibar, capital of the southern Yemeni province of Abyan, according to the government of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Eyewitnesses report that armed men stormed into Zinjibar last Friday and began occupying government buildings. The armed men had taken control of most of the city, which is on the Gulf of Aden, by Sunday.
Several top defected generals have claimed that President Saleh is purposely ceding territory to AQAP, perhaps as a distraction to the continuing protests against his rule.
“Saleh has surrendered the Abyan governorate armed militias,” said rebel general Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, in a statement read by his spokesman.
Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani said there were no clashes between AQAP militants and the Yemeni military.
“The military has pulled out of Abyan,” al-Iryani said. “Yemen’s elite, American trained counter-terrorism units have been stationed in Abyan for months. For some reason, they have been pulled out. It is ridiculous to think that these elite units could not have held off an ill-equipped al-Qaeda advance. If AQAP was strong enough to take control of an entire governorate, they would have done so much sooner.”
According to al-Iryani, Khalid Abdul Nabi is a driving force behind the AQAP advance in Abyan. Abdul Nabi, a “rehabilitated” jihadist, was closely allied with the Saleh regime until his disappearance in 2010.
Militants led by the same man reportedly overtook the town of Ja’ar in Abyan last March after raiding and destroying an arms factory, killing hundreds of workers in the process.
President Saleh has resisted calls to step down despite three months of nearly daily protests, with growing conflicts between government forces and opposition tribes. There are concerns that the country could be plunged into civil war.