Yemeni forces and Arab allies enter port city of Mukalla, held by al-Qaeda for a year.
In April, Major-General Faraj Salmeen Al-Bahsini led thousands of army troops and local fighters in a major offensive to clear the city of Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s south-eastern province of Hadramout, from al-Qaeda fighters.
With air support from the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen, Al-Bahsini recaptured the city and neighbouring regions in less than 24 hours.
Al-Bahsini spoke to Al Jazeera from his office in what is known locally as Mukalla’s “Green Zone”.
Al Jazeera: In April the Saudi-led coalition talked about killing 800 al-Qaeda fighters during the offensive you led on Mukalla. Is this number accurate?
Al-Bahsini: I think we might have killed more than this number. This is because several of al-Qaeda’s military camps in Wadi Al-Mouhmeden, in Al-Adwas, that host a big number of fighters were destroyed first by the coalition’s warplanes and then by [our] forces on the ground. None of the al-Qaeda fighters was able to flee these camps.
Army forces that swept into Al-Adwas camp found many bodies scattered on the ground, under the rubble and inside trenches. Also, the coalition’s navy which sealed off Hadramout’s coast a week before the operation killed hundreds of fighters who were fleeing the city on boats and vessels bound for the Horn of Africa.
Al Jazeera: How many soldiers took part in the operation against al-Qaeda in Mukalla? Who trained and armed them?
Al-Bahsini: This operation is unique. It had been in the making for six months by military experts from the coalition and Hadramout. The Saudi-led coalition trained the forces, paid them and provided them with arms and equipment. Those army forces were from Hadramout. The number of soldiers was 20,000 plus several thousand allied resistance fighters.
The operation included assaulting al-Qaeda on three tracks: The airport, Dhabah oil terminal and the city of Mukalla. Al-Qaeda planted landmines around these three areas. With Dhabah oil terminal, where almost three million oil barrels are stored, we used special commandos who attacked al-Qaeda from the sea and defused the mines.
Al Jazeera: Did any American soldiers take part in the operation?
Al-Bahsini: From my capacity as the commander of the second region, I can say for sure that not a single American or western soldier participated in the operation. I have never met any of them and no American troops are currently on the ground in Hadramout. The Americans might exchange intelligence information with the coalition.
Al Jazeera: What about the twin suicide bombings that claimed the lives of many soldiers and recruits in Mukalla in mid-May. How do you explain these attacks?
Al-Bahsini: After the liberation of Mukalla, another mission followed which included promoting stability, the quick deployment of forces around key facilities, blocking the city’s entrances and increasing checkpoints as to prevent any [al-Qaeda and ISIL] elements from sneaking into the city to undermine security by carrying out terrorist attacks.
The plan was executed remarkably. But – as you know – al-Qaeda had spent a year in Mukalla during which it looted huge financial sources. Following the victory, there could still have been some elements who remained in the city to carry out suicide attacks.
Al Jazeera: What did you do to protect your forces from similar attacks in the future?
Al-Bahsini: We have banned vulnerable gatherings and ordered soldiers to stay in their protected camps.
Al Jazeera: And what have you done to stop fighters from carrying out further attacks?
Al-Bahsini: After assessing these attacks, we first injected more forces to new checkpoints and deployed forces outside the city to be able to hunt down terrorist elements before they reach the city.
Secondly, we stepped up security and intelligence efforts. This process was very fruitful. Within a short period of time we gathered huge intelligence information that enabled us to take pre-emptive action. We have raided terrorists’ hiding places and captured many of them, including senior figures in Sheher, Ghayal Bawazer and on the outskirts of Mukalla.
Al Jazeera: The little-known ISIL branch in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the attacks. How do you assess the strength of ISIL in Hadramout?
Al-Bahsini: ISIL and al-Qaeda are two sides of the same coin. We think that ISIL is more brutal than al-Qaeda. We have killed and arrested some terrorists in Wadi Sar and the continuing investigation would sieve ISIL from al-Qaeda. These elements are predominantly supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh [former president of Yemen]. Saleh personally incited them to head to Hadramout to receive heavy arms from the army forces loyal to him in the city.
Al Jazeera: You and other army generals loyal to Hadi’s government usually blame the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the expansion of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Do you have concrete evidence that gives credence to your claims?
Al-Bahsini: Yes, we have evidence. We have found a large number of IDs of dead and captured al-Qaeda and ISIL elements showing they were actually soldiers at the Central Security Forces and the Republican Guard.
Al Jazeera: Is al-Qaeda still powerful and able to recapture cities? How do you assess al-Qaeda’s strength following the military operations in the south? What is the approximate number of al-Qaeda fighters in Mukalla?
Al-Bahsini: Al-Qaeda has suffered fatal blows in Hadramout after the precise air strikes by the coalition’s warplanes on their key positions, gatherings, ammunition depots and centres-of-command rooms.
These air strikes forced them to flee to Baydha, Shabwa, Hajjar [in Hadramout], Marfaa [in Hadramout] and other areas. A large number of them were killed in the operation. We have no accurate number of al-Qaeda fighters who are still hiding in Mukalla. We have arrested from 220 to 230 al-Qaeda fighters, including some leading figures like Mohammed Saleh Al-Gharabi. We have not been able to catch other leaders like Qasim Al-Raymi and Khalid Batarfi.
Al Jazeera: What is the condition of the oil companies in Hadramout? Are they secure? When do you think companies will begin exporting oil?
Al-Bahsini: Hadramout is a unique case. When the coastal areas fell to al-Qaeda and the state of forces in the interior was dubious, local people around oil companies, including Hadramout Tribal Alliance, filled in the vacuum and protected the oil companies.
The oil companies’ managers say that all the companies’ major machines remain untouched. Only a few cars were stolen. We took charge of security when we sent trained forces to replace the tribesmen. The companies are in safe hands and Dhabah oil terminal has been cleared of landmines. The companies are waiting for our reports about the security situation there to begin pumping oil.