The battle for southern Yemen

An exclusive report from the frontline in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

The phone rang it was the army public affairs officer who said “You can go with an escort to safer areas in Zinjibar”.

It was the culmination of weeks of talks with the army about letting an international media crew to an area that has always been off-limits.

The attitude of the army leadership has dramatically changed. While I struggled in the past few years to get access to conflict zones, like Saada in the north, where a Shia rebellion is pressing up for religious and political rights, or Abyan and Shabwa where al-Qaeda has grown very strong running large swathes of land according to strict interpretation of sharia law.

We drove for about 15 minutes towards Zinjibar, at the first military checkpoint, we were told to return, they said the situation is very dangerous.

Our escort, an army colonel, was very nervous about the trip but upon insisting they took us to a forward command post on the outskirts of Zinjibar.

There I met with Colonel Amrani. Quite a character!

He commands a unit that is tasked with storming the center of Zinjibar.

“You media people, you like action and fireworks… Let’s drive on my armoured vehicle I will take you guys to a place where you can see my troops. Nobody will die but if you are to die today its fate and we cannot escape our fate.”

We chose to drive our bus which we hired in Aden… Poor old Esmet has never been to a conflict zone, wise and polite he was always silent. The only time I heard him speak was when we came under attack and he said “pray for your souls in case we shall die today”.

On the frontline, Colonel Amrani was explaining the delicate task his troops face, fighting an al-Qaeda very well-seasoned in street battles and guerilla warfare.

Suddenly artillery and tanks unleashed their inferno… Bang, bang, bang!

Colonel Amrani’s soldiers came under sniper fire the rare calm turned into sniper bullets whizzing by and shells reverberating off an open desert area where the frontline has been blurred, with soldiers taking up positions, and just a dozens of metres away al-Qaeda fighters firing from their hideouts.

A classic replay of former scenarios where a vastly superior army is trying to cope with fighters moving surreptitiously in small numbers… Their tactic is hit-and-run.

There are two battles taking place simultaneously: the US and Yemeni army teaming against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The US’s main goal is to “eliminate high value targets” in military parlance it’s the core al-Qaeda leadership which they consider a serious threat to its interests and national security, their signature weapon in this war is drone attacks.

In the meantime, Yemeni troops are scrambling to show the world that they are more genuine about defeating al Qaeda than the regime of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Our last destination was an army unit tasked with the fight in Jaar a major al-Qaeda stronghold. But the moment we were entering the gate we came under mortar attack. The commander in charge approached and said in polite terms “this is obviously the worst time for a commander to give an interview when his unit is being shelled”.

Off to Aden we drove…. Leaving behind a military campaign under way. From 2009, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP was formed to 2011, when they gained control of many areas little we know as journalists… How was al-Qaeda able to turn into a major group with affiliates and secure towns, remains an enigma.

Follow Hashem Ahelbarra on Twitter: @hashemahel

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