SANA, Yemen — Islamist extremists, many suspected of links to al-Qaida, are engaged in an intensifying struggle against government forces for control of southern Yemen, taking advantage of a growing power vacuum, the Washington Post reported Sunday, citing Yemeni and U.S. officials.
Over the past few weeks, the militants have taken over two towns, including Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, and surrounding areas, said Yemeni security officials and residents. Increasingly, it appears as if al-Qaida's regional affiliate is seeking to grab and hold large swaths of territory, adding a dangerous dimension to Yemen's crisis.
U.S. and Yemeni officials worry that a loss of government control in the south could further destabilize this strategic Mideast nation, already gripped by political paralysis, violent conflicts and fears of collapse.
The government has not allowed journalists to visit Zinjibar. This article is based on more than a dozen interviews with provincial officials, government employees and tribal leaders from Abyan, as well as Yemeni and U.S. officials, and telephone interviews with residents of Zinjibar and surrounding areas.
They describe a ghost town where streets are a canvas of destruction, struck by daily shelling, air assaults and gunfire. There's no electricity, water or other services. Tens of thousands, mostly women and children, have fled the city. Men have stayed back only to protect their homes. The extremists man checkpoints, and any semblance of authority or governance has vanished.
"They want to create an Islamic emirate," said Mohammed al-Shuhairi, 50, a journalist in al-Kowd, near Zinjibar. "I have lived through wars here in 1978, 1986 and 1994. But I have never seen anything as bad as this."
The Islamist extremists are mostly from various Yemeni provinces but also include other Arabs and foreign fighters. They call themselves Ansar al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law, residents said.
The takeover of Zinjibar underscores the growing aggressiveness of the militants, who appear to be taking advantage of political turmoil triggered by the populist rebellion seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The crisis has further deepened since Saleh was severely wounded in a June 3 assault on his presidential palace, forcing him to fly to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment and raising doubts about his ability to rule.
Libya: The Libyan government said Sunday that it had reopened a major highway from the capital to the Tunisian border after routing a rebel attack on the road near the strategic town of Zawiya. But opposition spokesmen said fierce fighting continued in Zawiya, the largest city between the capital and the Tunisian border and home of the nation's principal functioning refinery.
Jordan: King Abdullah II announced that the government would in the future be elected, not appointed, responding to a demand of protesters calling for democratic change. But he did not specify any timetable for the change.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times was used in this report.