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Yemen army takes control of Qaeda bastion Azzan

Yemeni troops seize control Saturday of southeastern town of Azzan - a known Al-Qaeda bastion - after group's fighters pulled out a week ago

AFP , Saturday 23 Jun 2012

Thirty-five people, meanwhile, were killed in the southern Abyan province over the past 10 days in explosions from landmines laid by Al-Qaeda fighters before they fled from the province, officials said.

"Some 60 vehicles of army and security forces have been deployed across central Azzan," a local government official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that army warplanes were seen flying over the area.

Witnesses confirmed that Azzan, in the southeastern Shabwa province, was finally handed over to the army by a committee of tribal mediators to whom the Al-Qaeda fighters had initially handed over the town.

On June 17, Al-Qaeda militants fled from Azzan, the last town in Yemen where they had established complete control.

Al-Qaeda had declared an Islamic emirate in the desert town where hundreds of fighters were believed to have sought refuge after fleeing their strongholds in the nearby Abyan province.

Taking advantage of a weakening central government control by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year, the militants had overrun most of Abyan, capturing Zinjibar, Jaar, Shuqra and several other villages.

But on May 12, Yemen's military launched an all-out offensive to recapture the lost province. The army and local militiamen have succeeded in taking over all of Abyan's towns except for Mahfad where jihadists still have a strong presence.

Meanwhile, landmines the jihadists had laid in Abyan before fleeing have killed at least 35 people in the past 10 days, officials said. Twenty-seven people were killed only in the provincial capital of Zinjibar, while eight died on the outskirts of the town of Jaar.

"Landmine explosions in Zinjibar have left 27 people dead" since the army, backed by local militiamen, drove out Al-Qaeda militants from the capital of the province on June 13, said Zinjibar deputy mayor Ghassan Sheikh.

He said of the 27 people killed, nine died on June 14 while returning to Zinjibar from where they had fled after the militants seized it in May 2011, local official Mohsen Saleh said. Sheikh said the Yemeni army has so far been unable to clear all the landmines, adding the explosives were sown in most streets of Zinjibar.

"Most of Zinjibar's residents have been unable to return yet" from the main southern city of Aden to their town which has been totally destroyed by the fighting, he said.

Eight other civilians were killed in similar landmine blasts on the outskirts of the nearby town of Jaar which was a major stronghold of Al-Qaeda since last year, rights activist Wahid Abdullah said.

On Friday, the new army commander for the south, Major-General Naser al-Taheri, vowed to continue the fight against Al-Qaeda. He replaced General Salem Ali Qoton who was assassinated by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber on Monday.

Taheri vowed that his predecessor's killing will only "make us more determined... to hunt these terrorist groups in their hideouts until the nation is cleansed from their evil," state news agency Saba quoted him as saying.

Qoton, who had led the five-week-long offensive against the jihadists in Abyan and Shabwa provinces was killed along with two of his aides, when a Somali suicide bomber threw himself on his vehicle in the regional capital Aden.

US officials have repeatedly described Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the most dangerous of the jihadist network's worldwide affiliates.

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