SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Government-backed Yemeni tribesmen for the first time joined the fight against al-Qaida-linked militants in a lawless southern province Sunday, security officials said. Fighting across Yemen's south left seven dead.
Government troops have been struggling to contain Islamic militants in the southern Abyan province after losing control of the provincial capital, Zinjibar, and another town, Jaar, earlier this year.
The use of tribesmen against the militants marks a new stage in the government's fight against the extremists. Some of the militants were at one time or another patronized by the regime of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh as part of his complex attempt to maintain his grip on power and undermine his rivals.
Sunday's fighting broke out after tribesmen failed to persuade militants to leave the towns of Lawder and Modya to spare residents indiscriminate government airstrikes. One militant was killed, and four were wounded in clashes in the two towns, said security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The officials said the army has been supplying the tribesmen with weapons.
Also Sunday, four militants were killed and two wounded in fighting in Zinjibar that also left one soldier killed, the Defense Ministry said.
In the southern city of Taiz, a hotbed of opposition protests, random artillery shelling of positions held by opposition tribesmen early Sunday killed two people, injured 10 and destroyed two houses and a mosque in al-Rawda district, according to the officials.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday that Yemeni troops may have killed dozens of civilians caught in the crossfire over the past two months as government forces battled al-Qaida-linked militants in the country's restive south.
There are concerns that the militants are exploiting Yemen's political turmoil and are seeking to expand their influence amid a monthslong popular uprising that seeks to oust Saleh.
Saleh has been in a Saudi hospital for more than a month to treat wounds sustained in an attack on his palace. He appeared for the first time on state TV late Thursday.
The video showed the leader with casts on his arms and visibly weakened after a series of operations, reinforcing speculation that he won't return to Yemen soon.
He did not say if or when he plans to return, adding a new twist to the rebellion.
Saleh did not mention the U.S.-backed plan proposed by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors that would see him stand down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign the initiative.