Islamist gunmen have occupied government buildings in the Yemeni coastal city of Zanjibar, amid claims that groups such as al-Qaeda are exploiting unrest caused by anti-government protests.
There are conflicting reports on the affiliation of the gunmen. Tarek al-Shami, who heads the information department at the ruling General People’s Congress, said the gunmen were al-Qaeda fighters who wrested control of the facilities in a gun battle with Yemeni troops yesterday.
“The government is planning to launch a strike against them,” he said in a telephone interview from the capital, Sana’a. Opposition leader Ali Dahmas, speaking in an interview from the city, said the gunmen were Islamist activists operating under orders from regime loyalists “who withdrew from police stations and other facilities and allowed the gunmen to take control of the city.”
Anti-government protests have shaken Yemen since Feb. 11. The demonstrators are calling on Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. The Yemeni president has refused to sign a Western-backed power transition accord, brokered by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, that provides for his departure.
“The government wants to show the international community that al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos resulting from anti-regime protests and that if he were to step down al-Qaeda would take over,” said Dahmas.
A statement issued yesterday by the opposition Joint Meeting Parties denounced the “regime’s open handover of some cities in the province of Abyan to armed groups,” which it said the government had set up.
Al-Shami rejected the claims, saying the government has “long been engaged in battles with al-Qaeda elements” in Zanjibar and other parts of Abyan Province.
The takeover in Zanjibar came a day after three French workers were reported missing in Yemen in Seyoun city, in the southeastern province of Hadramaut.
The “chaos” of anti-regime protests in Yemen may let al-Qaeda make inroads there, Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department spokesman said on May 25. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may gain an “ability to interfere” in Yemen because of the country’s instability, he said.