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Clashes between armed civilians and Al Qaeda militants trying to retake control of the town of Loder spread yesterday to nearby Mudia, as the death toll from four days of clashes reached 200, local sources said.
At least 23 people, 20 of them suspected militants, were killed in one suburb of the southern town, tribal sources said.
The rest of the dead were tribal fighters allied with government troops who were killed in the jihadist assault on the Abyan province town, the sources said.
Residents of the province, mainly from Loder and Mudia, formed armed groups in 2011 after Al Qaeda militants overran the provincial capital of Zinjibar.
At least 51 people were killed on Wednesday in a third day of clashes in and around Loder, according to military and tribal sources.
Loder lies some 150km northeast of Zinjibar, the Abyan capital that militants of the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Al Shariah (Partisans of Sharia) overran last May.
Al Qaeda briefly seized Loder in August 2010 before being driven out by the army, while armed men from the Assal tribe also ejected the militants from Mudia.
A tribal source said the militants wanted to recapture it because of its strategic location between Shabwa, Bayda and Lahij provinces where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is also active.
Abyan has fallen completely under the control of the terror network except for Loder and Mudia.
The US considers the Yemen-based AQAP to be the most deadly and active branch of the global terror network.
Al Qaeda appears determined to capture Loder in a bid to build itself a secure base in the Arabian Peninsula.
Its location between three provinces gives Loder strategic importance, and it can also provide a safe haven from bombardment from the sea, experts say, adding that the militant group is seeking to extend its influence across the region.
“Al Qaeda has practically lost its refuges in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, after it was crushed in Saudi Arabia,” says Mustafa Ani, an expert on jihadi groups.
He says that following Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan by US special forces on May 1 2011, the network he founded has been weakened and is now “seeking to establish a safe haven in southern Yemen”.
“Such a refuge would allow them to set up training camps and centres for recruitment and selection of leaders.”
“Al Qaeda controls or is able to move freely in a crescent of territory stretching from the border with Oman to Abyan and the fringes of Aden through the desert province of Hadramout,” says Yemeni political analyst Fares al-Saqaf.
“It seems that Al Qaeda has changed tactics. Instead of attacking and then fleeing, it has chosen to have a strong presence on the ground,” Saqaf says.
“The network would appear to want to convince people that it represents a kind of administrative group and is no longer made up of hordes of terrorists.”
In the areas it controls, Al Qaeda dispenses summary justice under Shariah in addition to trying to administer local affairs.
Saqaf does not rule out collusion between elements of Al Qaeda and soldiers still loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh who are accused by the ex-president’s opponents of trying to derail the political transition led by his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
And he also says some separatist southerners hostile to the unity of Yemen would not hesitate to collaborate with Al Qaeda if it furthered their aims.>