Yemen began a military operation against al-Qaeda-affiliated militants to free a Finnish couple and an Austrian man abducted last month in the capital, Sana’a.
The campaign, which started yesterday in the central province of al-Baidha, where the captives are believed held, followed unsuccessful tribal mediation with al-Qaeda, a senior officer said. The army will continue the operation until the hostages are released and foreign militants are forced out of the region, the officer said on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to talk to the media.
The army has been using heavy weapons, including artillery, aircraft and helicopters, to shell militant strongholds in al-Manaseh in al-Baidha, said Khaled al-Jahrani, a local resident. Troops have been deployed to different parts of the region and tanks and armored vehicles can be seen on the roads, he said by telephone today.
Armed tribesmen have joined the al-Qaeda militants who are fighting the government troops, said Khalid al-Thahab, a tribal chief in al-Baidha. They besieged an army battalion in al-Thaaleb village in al-Baidha and destroyed some of its heavy weaponry. “The clashes are fierce and expanding,” he said.
Hours after the campaign began, a suicide bomber targeted a military checkpoint in the province, killing 11 soldiers and wounding 17 others.
A group of unidentified men seized the three Westerners in the center of Sana’a on Dec. 21. The abducted Finnish man was studying in Yemen, and his kidnapped partner, a woman, was visiting him, Finland’s Foreign Ministry said last month.
Yemen’s Interior Minister Abdul-Qader Qahtan discussed the abductions with Austria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Gregor Koessler, state-run Saba news agency reported yesterday. Qahtan assured Koessler during his visit to Sana’a that Yemeni authorities are committed to “freeing them in a way that guarantees their safety,” Saba cited Qahtan as saying.