By AHMED AL-HAJ, Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida claimed responsibility on Wednesday for a daring weekend assault on a military base in southern Yemen, killing nearly 200 soldiers, the bloodiest battle in a year of turmoil.
In the aftermath of the brazen al-Qaida attack, the U.N. envoy to Yemen warned Wednesday that the terror group has gained ground during the country's political crisis.
Al-Qaida's Yemen branch said in a statement posted on several jihadi websites that it carried out the attack in reaction to the military's plans to sweep through its strongholds in the city of Zinjibar, the provisional capital of southern Abyan province.
The al-Qaida assault has stepped up pressure on newly inaugurated President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to follow through on pledges to purge the army of officers loyal to his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
For the third day, tens of thousands of Yemenis demonstrated in cities across the country, demanding that Hadi prosecute army commanders suspected of negligence or collaborating with al-Qaida in the Sunday attack.
In response to the protesters' demands, the Yemeni interim government pledged to speed up restructuring the army and said that "negligent" army commanders "will be punished."
Al-Qaida took advantage of last year's uprising against Saleh to seize several towns in the south. Poorly equipped and trained Yemeni armed forces have failed to regain control.
The U.S. considers the Yemen branch of al-Qaida one of its most dangerous. U.S. aircraft have targeted leaders of the branch in the past.
U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council Wednesday that the collapse of state authority in a number of areas around the country has benefited al-Qaida.
Benomar also warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where he said the political turmoil has left a quarter of the people in the nation of 25 million without enough food.
Witnesses in the town of Jaar, located near Zinjibar, said that hundreds of families have fled the town, fearing new clashes between al-Qaida-linked militants and government forces.
Tawfiq Hashim, a teacher from Jaar, said militants have been distributing flyers urging residents not to leave their houses.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has a team treating the wounded in Jaar, said in a statement Wednesday that the situation in the town is "tense."
The battle "left scores of people wounded or dead on both sides," said Eric Marclay, the head of the ICRC in Yemen.
In the aftermath of the Sunday attack, military officials said death toll among government forces has reached 185.
Al-Qaida militants overran a base near the town of Zinjibar and shot soldiers in their sleep. Some of the bodies recovered afterward were missing heads, and others were mutilated. Another 55 soldiers were reported captured with 32 attackers killed.
In its statement, al-Qaida gave different casualty figures: 100 soldiers killed and 73 captured. It said only two militants were killed. It was not possible to reconcile the two sets of figures.
The militants' statement said they captured weapons, including a tank and Katyusha rocket launchers.
Saleh was replaced as president by Hadi last month as part of a U.S.-backed, Gulf Arab-initiated deal, which Washington hopes will allow Yemen's central government to rebuild its authority and uproot the militants from the south.
Yemeni activists say the army is still packed with Saleh supporters chosen for loyalty rather than competence, who have been lax in taking the fight to al-Qaida and may even have struck local deals with the militants.
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