Speculation surrounds coalition claim of 800 al-Qaeda fighters killed

Speculation surrounds coalition claim of 800 al-Qaeda fighters killed
Video: Questions have been raised in Yemen over the veracity of reports claiming 800 al-Qaeda militants were killed in Mukalla, after a fierce offensive was launched by the Arab coalition.
4 min read
25 April, 2016
Claims by the Arab coalition suggesting its forces killed 800 militants from Yemen's al-Qaeda branch (AQAP) during a 24-hour offensive in the coastal city of Mukalla, have been ripped apart by prominent analysts and journalists in the country.

Earlier on Monday, the Saudi-led coalition claimed Yemeni troops, with aerial coalition backing, killed more than 800 members of Al-Qaeda in an attack on a southeastern provincial capital held by the group for the past year.

Pro-government forces recaptured an oil terminal as well as the city of Mukalla, which was considered a stronghold of the group, military sources claimed.

"The operation resulted... in the death of more than 800 Al-Qaeda members and some of their leaders, while some others fled," Arab coalition commanders said in a statement published by SPA, the Saudi state news agency.

The death toll could not be independently confirmed and no indication was given of civilian casualties, however prominent on-the-ground journalists suggested the coalition exaggerated the number of militants killed, with many even suggesting AQAP had withdrawn from the coastal city without a fight.

"With mounting criticism of the coalition not fighting AQAP, they're going berserk in exploiting the fact that AQAP cleared out of Mukalla by making outlandish claims for media blitz," local analyst, Hisham Omeisy told The New Arab.

It just shows you how desperate the Saudi-led coalition is to change the negative image the world has of them for not fighting AQAP enough," he added.

The official narrative was further undermined by a military officer who said troops "entered [Mukalla] city centre and were met by no resistance from Al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west", towards the desert in Hadramawt and Shabwa provinces, he told AFP by phone from the militants' previous stronghold.

The officer, who requested anonymity, said residents of Mukalla, home to an estimated 200,000 people, had appealed to the militants to spare the city the destruction of fighting and to withdraw.

The operation was part of a wider offensive aimed at securing parts of the country captured by militants who have exploited a 13-month war between Gulf-backed loyalists and Houthi rebels allied with former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It coincides with UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait after a ceasefire entered into effect on April 11, but from which militant groups are excluded.

Yemeni military sources said Emirati military vehicles were used in the operation and that troops from the UAE, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition, were among the forces that entered Mukalla.

The Arab coalition battling rebels in Yemen since March 2015 carried out airstrikes against positions held by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Mukalla to pave the way for ground troops, military sources said.

Troops also recaptured Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal in Shehr further east, the sources said.

On Sunday, military sources said pro-government forces seized Riyan airport and an army brigade headquarters on the outskirts of Mukalla that had been held by al-Qaeda for a year.

Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is regarded by Washington as the network's most dangerous branch, and has carried out deadly attacks on the West in the past.

Last month, a US airstrike on an Al-Qaeda training camp in Hadramawt province reportedly killed dozens of fighters.

A provincial official in Shabwa said militants also fled from the town of Azzan on Sunday which they seized in February.

Read more: Saudi-backed troops target Al-Qaeda in southern Yemen

As the anti-militant offensive gained momentum, a bomb-laden vehicle killed seven soldiers and wounded 14 on Sunday. They were in a convoy entering another southern jihadist stronghold - Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, said military sources, blaming Al-Qaeda for the attack.

The coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, has deployed Apache helicopters to support Yemeni and other troops fighting on the ground.

Forces loyal to internationally recognised President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's government have retreated from Zinjibar after entering it late on Saturday, an officer in Abyan told AFP.

"The withdrawal was decided following information that Al-Qaeda was preparing other car-bomb attacks against our troops," added the officer.

Coalition-backed forces have also driven militants from Aden, the southern city declared by Hadi to be Yemen's temporary capital after Houthi rebels overran Sanaa in September 2014.

And last week, government forces expelled AQAP militants from Huta, the provincial capital of Lahj.

When US President Barack Obama met Gulf leaders on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, they discussed the wars in Yemen and Syria.

During the visit, Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's closest advisers, urged all warring sides in Yemen to participate "constructively" in the Kuwait talks that began on Thursday, saying that a political solution would "allow for a focus on AQAP in Yemen".