ADEN/SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s military said it launched air strikes on Thursday against Islamist fighters linked to al Qaeda in the south of the country, where residents and aid agencies say a month-old offensive has cut off supplies of food and medicine.
The air force bombed a weapons cache east of Jaar, in the southern province of Abyan, and tribal militiamen fighting alongside the army killed two Islamist fighters north of the town, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Yemen’s military is attempting to retake several towns in the province from Islamists who seized them over a year ago during mass protests against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh that split the military into warring factions.
Saleh gave way to his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in February in a power transfer deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and blessed by Washington, which fears chaos in Yemen will empower the wing of al Qaeda that has plotted attacks from the country.
The air strikes followed complaints from residents of towns near Jaar, one focus of the military campaign that began last month, that no food or fuel was reaching them.
“All the roads are cut, and there is no food or gas” Ali Mohammed Mojahed said by telephone from the outskirts of Jaar, about 60 km (40 miles) from the port city of Aden.
“A lot of people have stayed put because they don’t have the fare for a car to Aden,” he said. “It’s better for me to die at home than flee to Aden and live in misery ... the shelling continues and the army is hitting areas outside Jaar. Most of the damage is to civilians.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday called for a pause in fighting to allow delivery of humanitarian aid. The ICRC said it was seeking access from the belligerents, include the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, but had yet to secure it.
“We are in touch with all the parties to the conflict, the government and Ansar al-Sharia,” ICRC spokesperson Dibeh Fakhr said from the capital Sanaa. “We need access to prevent an acute humanitarian crisis and worry about the possibility of a mass movement to Aden.”
Tens of thousands of people fled heavy fighting last year near Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar, as the military tried to retake it from Ansar al-Sharia, with the displaced squatting schools and public buildings in Aden.
Concerned about the potential for state collapse in Yemen, Gulf Arab states and the West last month pledged more than $4 billion in aid to the impoverished state, where some 40 percent of the people are malnourished. Saudi Arabia alone pledged $3.25 billion in aid.
Yemen is seeing an accelerated campaign of drone strike assassinations by Washington against alleged al Qaeda members, including one targeting a U.S. citizen last year.
In Sanaa, activists who had camped in the capital’s Change Square for more than a year to press Saleh to step down have been dismantling the tent encampment, residents said.
A Yemeni government spokesman in Washington said the move was being encouraged by the government, which has been clearing obstacles and roadblocks set up by opposing groups during the protests.
Protest organisers, who still want to see all of Saleh’s relatives removed from office and the former president tried, said some activists have been leaving the square on their own and denied a decision had been taken to dismantle the encampment.
“Those rebels have left their homes for more than a year and a half to protect the square and the protesters,” said Habib al-Areiqi, one of the protest organisers. “They will be returning home to spread the revolution there,” he added.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Roger Atwood