Last updated: 31 January, 2014

Suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen kill 15 Yemen soldiers

Suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen killed 15 Yemeni soldiers Friday when they attacked a checkpoint in Shibam in the southeastern province of Hadramawt, amid an intensified campaign targeting the jihadist network.

“Unknown armed men suspected to be from Al-Qaeda attacked an army checkpoint in Shibam, killing 15 soldiers and wounding several others,” a security official said on condition of anonymity.

He said the attackers also suffered casualties, but “they were able to withdraw with their dead and wounded”.

The historic city of Shibam, dubbed the “Manhattan of the Desert” because of its high-rise mud-brick buildings, is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Foreign tourists have also been targeted in Shibam.

In one of the deadliest attacks on foreigners there, a bomb killed four Koreans in 2009 as they took pictures of the sunset from a nearby hill.

The security official said “Al-Qaeda took advantage of tension in Hadramawt province to carry out this cowardly attack” on Friday.

A military source confirmed the toll to AFP, adding that “the attackers approached in cars and attacked five soldiers who were inspecting vehicles at the checkpoint, and attacked the rest of the soldiers who were having lunch after noon prayers”.

Hadramawt is a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which Washington views as the most deadly affiliate of the global jihadist network.

Security forces often come under attack in the province.

Elsewhere, the SABA state news agency also reported one soldier killed and two wounded in an attack by “terrorist elements” on a checkpoint in Bayda province, southeast of the capital, late on Thursday.

AQAP took advantage of a decline in central government control during Yemen’s 2011 uprising to seize large swathes of territory across the south.

The jihadists were driven back in June 2012 by a military offensive, and have been further weakened by a wave of drone strikes.

The US military operates all unmanned aircraft flying over Yemen in support of Sanaa’s campaign against Al-Qaeda, which Washington says is an essential part of its “war on terror”.

Dozens of militants have been killed in a sharply intensified campaign over the past year, despite criticism from human rights groups that say the drone strikes have killed many civilians.

The United Nations said that 16 civilians were killed and at least 10 wounded when two separate wedding processions were targeted by drones in early December.

The victims had been mistakenly identified as members of Al-Qaeda, the UN quoted local security officials as saying at the time.

The most recent drone attack killed three Al-Qaeda suspects on January 24 near a military position in the Obeida valley, near the eastern city of Marib and away from residential areas, a military source said.

Not only has Hadramawt had to contend with regular militant attacks, but since December, the province has also been hit by protests against the central government after the army killed a tribal chief, Said Ben Habrish, and his bodyguards.

Hadramawt was part of the formerly independent South Yemen, which was unified with the north in 1990. A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief but bloody civil war that ended with northern forces taking over the south.

Southern grievances have hindered the political transition following the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 following Arab Spring-inspired protests.