Militants calling themselves "Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law)," who are believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda, seized control of most of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, on May 29.
|Yemeni women shout slogans during a women's rally in support of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on July 16, 2011|
The city has since been the scene of heavy fighting with Yemeni security forces, especially the 25th Mechanised Brigade, which until recently was surrounded by the militants.
Most of Zinjibar's population has fled the fighting, which has wrought destruction in the city.
In the past week, Abyan tribes have regained control of a number of towns previously held by Al-Qaeda, said Sheikh Mohammed Ahmed al-Nakhai, a leader of the Nakhiine tribe and the top local official in the town of Mudiyah in Abyan.
"The tribes have formed an alliance in the province to expel Al-Qaeda from the cities and villages, as the presence of these militants is a danger to inhabitants," Nakhai said.
Tribesmen in Mudiyah were the first to move to expel Al-Qaeda, he said, adding that the militants had withdrawn from the town after mediation and tribesmen have set up barricades around the town's entrances.
Tribesmen in other towns including Mehfed and Jaar, which lies just north of Zinjibar, have also pushed Al-Qaeda militants out of their areas, he said.
"The disastrous situation in Zinjibar was a reason for this tribal alliance against the extremists, as they caused the displacement of tens of thousands of Zinjibar residents and destruction of infrastructure, turning it into a ruin," Nakhai said.
In Mudiyah and elsewhere in Abyan, Al-Qaeda had controlled government offices, had gunmen patrolling the streets, and banned publications they did not approve of, residents said.
Militants have also killed local tribesmen who were members of the security forces in attacks on checkpoints, and killed holders of military IDs, residents said.
Many members of Abyan tribes had supported or joined Al-Qaeda in the past, as they opposed the central government and viewed Al-Qaeda as a group that did the same.
But now, according to a tribal source, most of the tribes in Abyan have turned against Al-Qaeda, except for those in the town of Loder who have been meeting to decide what position to take.
A security official in Abyan, meanwhile, said that "the entry of the tribes into a tacit alliance with government forces has increased the pressure on Al-Qaeda and reduced attacks on the 25th Mechanised Brigade" in Zinjibar, while also permitting it to be reinforced.
"The state cannot eradicate terrorism without cooperation from the tribes, which have begun to stand in the way of Al-Qaeda without needing the support of the authorities," the official added.
Saleh al-Hanashi, a journalist from Jaar, said that "Al-Qaeda lost all popular support when it occupied Zinjibar and displaced the population."
"The rejection of Al-Qaeda has led local people to stand up to Al-Qaeda and demand that they leave their towns because of the tragedy they caused," Hanashi said.
Hundreds of residents of Jaar protested against Al-Qaeda on Friday, chanting "Al-Qaeda, get out of our city!"
Mohsen Salem Said, an official in Jaar who joined the demonstration, said residents, most of whom own weapons, ordered Al-Qaeda to leave and threatened that if they remained, "they will be targeted for killing by the population."
Al-Qaeda associates have now begun departing for farmlands around Jaar, he said.
"If the tribes continue in their approach, Al-Qaeda will disappear from the province," one tribal elder sympathetic to the militant group said.