The commander of Yemen’s southern military region has been killed in a suicide attack in the port city of Aden, medics and officials say.
General Salem Ali Qatan was killed near his home in the Mansoura neighbourhood of Aden on Monday, a medical official told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“Four others were wounded in the suicide attack,” the medic said.
The medic said the attacker “handed Qatan a paper, shook his hand and then detonated himself” as the general was walking to his office.
Witnesses said the bomber was wearing an explosives belt.
As the chief military commander in south Yemen, Qatan had led a month-long offensive against al-Qaeda, forcing the armed group to withdraw from several towns and villages in the Abyan and Shabwa provinces which they had controlled since last year.
The latest attack came as al-Qaeda fled from their last bastion in the town of Azzan in Shabwa.
Since last week, al-Qaeda has withdrawn from three other strongholds in Abyan, including the capital Zinjibar, and the towns of Jaar and Shuqra.
Qatan was appointed in March just days after newly elected President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi took office and pledged to destroy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the name given to the armed group’s local Yemen branch.
The killing of Major General Salem Ali Qatan highlighted the tenuous grip of Yemen’s central authorities on the south despite a month of US-supported bombardments and airstrikes aimed at crushing the militants.
The defence ministry said a suicide bomber hurled himself at Qatan’s vehicle, also killing two soldiers escorting him. It identified the bomber as a Somali but gave no other details.
Pools of blood coated the street where the bomber struck.
A doctor at the hospital where Qatan died said 12 other people, nine of them soldiers, were wounded in the attack in Aden, a port city overlooking oil shipping lanes fewer than 100km from several cities which Islamists flying al
Qaeda’s banner recently controlled.
‘Huge loss for Yemen’
The post had been held for decades by General Mahdi Maqola, known for his close ties to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh was accused by his opponents of allowing al-Qaeda to establish a stronghold in Yemen’s mostly lawless south and east.
Qatan’s appointment was in line with the Gulf-sponsored power-transition deal that saw Saleh quit after 33 years in power, and required Hadi to restructure the Yemeni army during a two-year interim period.
Ali Mansur, a senior army commander and close aide to Qatan described the general’s death as “a huge loss for Yemen and its efforts to fight al-Qaeda”.
Speaking to the AFP news agency by phone, Mansur said the attack “bears the hallmark of al-Qaeda,” though the armed group have not formally claimed responsibility for his death.
He gave Qatan full credit for the recent Yemen army’s victories against al-Qaeda in both Abyan and Shabwa.
“In just three months, Qatan achieved major progress towards chasing down and eliminating” the fighters from their strongholds, Mansur said.