Al-Qaeda militants began on Saturday leaving their south Yemen bastion of Azzan as the government warned local tribes against harbouring militants escaping a military campaign, witnesses said.
Militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia (partisans of sharia) “have started to leave in what seems to be a redeployment,” said a witness from Azzan, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda in the southeastern province of Shabwa.
Many Al-Qaeda gunmen had escaped to Azzan after they pulled out from their strongholds of Jaar, Zinjibar and Shuqra this week in the province of Abyan as the army intensified a five-week all-out offensive aimed to root out the network.
A tribal chief told AFP that Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi sent a stern message to the tribes of Azzan and its surroundings to “cooperate with the army in the campaign against Al-Qaeda and not to harbour or hide militants.”
The president warned the tribes that there was “no return” in what he said was an “international” decision to hunt Al-Qaeda in the southern Arabian Peninsula country.
Witnesses in Azzan said that a pamphlet attributed to the militants said that the gunmen “were negotiating to surrender Azzan peacefully.”
The pamphlet also claimed that Al-Qaeda fighters were “abandoning the effort to establish Islamic emirates,” just as they did in some southern Yemen towns, and that they were quitting the country for jihad holy war abroad.
“Ansar al-Sharia are preparing to leave Yemen, following the will of (late Al-Qaeda founder) sheikh Osama bin Laden to attack the interests of the Americans, crusaders and those who cooperate with them,” the pamphlet said, according to witnesses.
The United States hailed Yemen on Saturday for recapturing militant bastions in the south, after adamant government troops and partisans forced Islamists to abandon their three main bastions in the province of Abyan.
Taking advantage of the weakening of central government control by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year, the militants had overrun most of Abyan.
On May 12, the army began its offensive to recapture territory lost to the militants.
A total of 567 people have died in the campaign — 429 Al-Qaeda militants, 78 soldiers, 26 militiamen and 34 civilians — according to an AFP tally compiled from various sources.