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Resistance battles al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Yemen
Updated 5/25/2012 11:57 AM ET
LAWDER, Yemen — From the top of the Mount Thira plateau, Yemen's southern province of Abyan stretches out to the Arabian Sea.

Between the mountain escarpment and the blue water haze on the distant horizon, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made its home. It is here that the first victory on the northern front of the U.S.-backed war against al-Qaeda's most threatening offshoot is being celebrated.

"We are the first ones to have beaten al-Qaeda. No one has beaten them before. Not in Pakistan, Afghanistan or here in Yemen," boasted Ali Aydah, 38.

Aydah is one of the commanders of a resistance force that rose up here against Ansar al-Sharia, the insurgent arm of the terror group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, after Yemeni army soldiers retreated from the edge of the battle-scarred town weeks ago. A suicide bombing Monday in the capital of Sanaa that killed nearly 100 soldiers was done by Ansar al-Sharia.

For two months, the ragtag force of local residents and tribesmen fought alongside the soldiers to take control of their town against the tanks and heavy weapons the militants had captured from Yemeni military units.

The battlefield is largely invisible from the plateau above the desert towns and jagged mountain ranges where the fighting has raged. The first signs of Yemeni military positions come into view during the winding descent from the plateau's 3,000-foot-high ridge.

On the desert plain below, tank tracks can be seen tattooed into the asphalt. Soldiers surround ancient stone forts erected centuries ago for the same purpose they are used for today — defensive positions.

At night, sporadic shelling from artillery echoes from a hillside — warning shots for al-Qaeda fighters who may be thinking of attacking under the cover of the mosquito-infested darkness.

The people's militia of about 5,000 men, armed with AK-47 automatic weapons and vintage bolt-action rifles, took the greatest number of casualties during the recent fierce fighting here. Sixty men died in the battle to hold the town while 33 government soldiers lost their lives. More than 580 of the joint force were left injured.

The hardest fighting took place at the town's power station. The bodies of at least a dozen local fighters and soldiers captured by the insurgents were found in the charred remains of the facility. Their decapitated heads had been tossed to one side as a message to those who dared challenge al-Qaeda.

"They'd peeled his head off like the top of can," Adyah said. "Another of our fighters they left hanging in a tree."

The militias in southern Yemen have pushed for years for independence from the government, seated to the north in Sanaa. A war in 1994 between North and South Yemen ended with the North's conquest of the Southern capital, Aden, and the combining of the two countries.

People here have long viewed the Yemeni military as an occupying force. But for the first time, the historic rivals fought side by side, partners in the battle to push al-Qaeda-linked insurgents out of at least five towns they have held for more than a year.

That effort is supported by the United States, which provides assistance to the Yemeni military and has been striking al-Qaeda targets with drone-fired missiles. One such strike in September killed Anwar al Awlaki, an American who was a senior cleric and operational commander for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

"They dig tunnels and hide in holes," said Madah Awal, a militia commander who described the tactics of fighters for Ansar al-Sharia, which seeks a strict Muslim state run by Islamic law.

Most recruits to Ansar al-Sharia are teenagers, who are more easily persuaded to join because of their "clean minds," Awal said. Some have been killed for refusing to act as suicide bombers.

From a nearby military base, Jamal Naser al-Aqel, the provincial governor, said the support of the tribesmen and residents is vital in the offensive to crush the insurgency.

Long-term success is likely to depend on improving the impoverished lives of the people here.

"We have a lot of problems here. The greatest problem here in Abyan is poverty," al-Aqel said. "Al-Qaeda is here because of the poverty. What we need from America is economic help."

About 10 million Yemenis, or 44% of the population, are undernourished. International donors recently pledged $4 billion in aid at the Friends of Yemen donor conference held in Saudi Arabia.

Although the terrorists have been pushed from Lawder, Ansar al-Sharia controls several towns in southern Yemen, including the provincial capital of Zinjibar, where the group wins support from locals by providing electricity, water and food.

Yemen's army has made several attempts to capture Zinjibar, but about 2,000 Islamists have prevented the military from making sustainable advances. Sadeq al-Qad, 38, who fled Zinjibar with his family last year, has been living in a school turned displacement camp in Aden. Qad is pessimistic about the prospect of returning to his hometown.

"Even if we go back, we have nothing left but the vultures and the snakes," he said.

Posted 5/24/2012 6:51 PM ET
Updated 5/25/2012 11:57 AM ET
Armed fighters of the people's resistance force of Lawder battle to push al-Qaeda-linked militants out of their town in Abyan province, Yemen.
Joe Sheffer
Armed fighters of the people's resistance force of Lawder battle to push al-Qaeda-linked militants out of their town in Abyan province, Yemen.