Civilians Flee From Battle In Southern Yemen

Government troops in Yemen have been battling al-Qaida militants in a remote southern town since the beginning of this week. The government acknowledges that some 2,000 civilians have fled their homes in the battle zone. Other reports put the figure much higher.

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In a remote town in the south of Yemen, government troops are using tanks and helicopters in a fierce battle against gunmen.�This operation coincides with a visit this week to Yemen by John Brennan, who's the U.S. counterterrorism advisor. He was there to discuss assistance for that country in its fight against extremists, some of whom are believed to be linked to al-Qaida. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is monitoring the fighting from her base in Cairo.

Soraya, what can you tell us about this operation?�

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, the Yemeni troops are in southern province called Shabwa. And they're zeroing in on a village there, called Al-Hoota. This is a remote area that is part of a region that's seeking to secede from Yemen. And the region was, in fact, a separate country up until about 20 years ago. But the government claims it's now a haven for an al-Qaida offshoot made up of Yemeni and Saudi fighters.

Exactly what's going on, though, it's hard to know, because the government is banning any independent observers from going in there. They say they've launched this operation in response to an al-Qaida attack on a vital pipeline. And they say they've killed a handful of militants and captured two dozen more.

INSKEEP: So you've got these militants, Yemenis - and Saudi Arabia, of course, being a nearby country. They attacked a pipeline. How, if at all, is it known that they're connected to al-Qaida?

NELSON: Well, it's the government saying it. I mean, again, it's very difficult to sort of figure out what's going on, because there are no independent observers there. In fact, what the locals are saying is that this is a blood feud against the government. And that, in fact, these are local or armed tribesmen that are sort of fighting with the government. And that this is more about fighting or subduing the secessionist movement than it is about al-Qaida.

But everybody sort of admits that, in fact, al-Qaida is in that area, that they've sort of been moving in. I mean, it's not an unknown tactic of theirs to sort of take advantage of local strife and rifts between government and local people to sort of establish their bases.

INSKEEP: So how have residents been affected by all this fighting?

NELSON: The government says about 2,000 people have fled. But actually, the Yemen Red Crescent and other aid groups that have had some contact with the people on the ground there put the numbers much higher. They say about 12,000. And that would be about three-quarters of the town emptying out and running away.

And this has created a real problem, because this is a very poor area. And so the other villages in the area cannot really accommodate or absorb these refugees. And so, you have a lot of people, now, living outdoors without any water, food or tents or any sort of medical, 'cause one can assume that there are probably injuries, if not deaths. So it's become a real humanitarian crisis.

INSKEEP: Soraya, we mentioned at the beginning that, coincidence or not, the U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan showed up in the country just as this offensive was beginning. How closely does the government of Yemen collaborate with the United States?

NELSON: Well, they're certainly relying on the U.S. for increased military aid and training. The Americans - it's important to note, the Americans are saying that this operation did not start or is not in conjunction with the visit by Mr. Brennan. But they also support what Yemen is doing to fight terrorism in the region.

INSKEEP: Are the Americans hunting for anyone in particular in Yemen?

NELSON: Well, the Americans claim they're not involved at all. And the Yemenis say they're going after al-Qaida militants. But what they've been very, very vehement about is to say that they are not after this U.S.-born radical cleric, who's wanted by the U.S. for a variety of things, including - he's linked to, let's say, the Fort Hood shootings, as well as the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day of last year.

And his name is Anwar al-Awlaki. His family compound is actually about 60 miles from where the fighting is going on. And he's been reported by some websites as actually being involved in this fight. But, again, the Yemenis are denying that.

INSKEEP: So he's not described as the target, but he's certainly somebody the United States would like to talk to if they had a chance?

NELSON: Exactly. And he's certainly in the area.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.�

Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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