SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Masked gunmen attacked buildings in Masameer in southern Yemen Thursday, the latest of a wave of militant attacks in the region, as the first shipment of Saudi-donated oil arrived in the impoverished, restive state.
The gift of crude underlined how fearful oil giant Saudi Arabia is that a bloody political crisis will tip its poor southern neighbour into chaos and give militants a foothold next to oil shipping routes.
The attackers, whom Yemen’s army called al Qaeda members, briefly took over a security headquarters and government in the Masameer district, residents told Reuters by telephone.
“There was a long battle with the security forces,” one resident said. The gunmen retreated after using up their ammunition, the resident said.
Three guards were killed Wednesday when gunmen stormed other state buildings in the city of al-Hota, close to the site of Thursday’s attack in Masameer. Southern separatists and Islamist fighters are both active in the region.
Months of pro-democracy protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule have nearly paralysed the country, leading to severe shortages of electricity, water and fuel.
Shipping sources said a tanker carrying 600,000 barrels of oil arrived at the port of Aden as part of a grant of 3 million barrels promised by Saudi Arabia. The sources said it would go to Aden’s refinery, idled since a blast in April cut the pipeline on which it relies.
Gulf Arab states have seen Saleh, forced to have surgery in Saudi Arabia after an attack on his palace this month, thwart three diplomatic bids to ease him from power and end a political crisis that has threatened to descend into civil war.
Yemeni forces said they caught ten suspected al Qaeda operatives trying to sneak into the southern port city of Aden late Wednesday. Aden sits by strategic shipping lanes along which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
At the same time, thousands of refugees have been fleeing to Aden since militants took over Zinjibar, the capital of the flashpoint southern province of Abyan.
A local security official said military checkpoints and patrols of banks and government buildings in Aden had been stepped up and that an attempt to blow up a hotel there had been foiled.
“Security forces captured saboteurs who were trying to plant an explosive device in a hotel in Aden,” he said. Five more people were detained for firing on residents and raiding stores in the Mansoora area of the city, he said.
Opponents of Saleh say he has let his forces hand over power to Islamist militants, who seized Zinjibar, capital of the southern Abyan province last month, in order to stoke fears that only his rule prevents an Islamist takeover.
Yemen’s Defence Ministry said two people were killed on Thursday after “terrorists” fired mortar rounds in the city, most of whose population has fled.
Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University said both the government and the opposition had tried to use al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen to their advantage in the media.
“We’re not sure what’s going on in Ayan or in Lahej (in the south) or even in Aden,” he said, expressing scepticism towards state reports of the capture or killing of al Qaeda militants.
“On the ground of course, al Qaeda exists ... but not all militants in Yemen are al Qaeda,” Johnsen said.
Yemeni scholar Ali Seif Hassan said the rise in violence suggested militant groups that had previously cooperated with Saleh were no longer doing so as his power waned.
“When the new regime comes, they will negotiate with them. They are not al Qaeda, to some extent they are like al Qaeda.”
Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Nour Merza in Dubai; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Louise Ireland