SANA, Yemen - Yemeni war planes and troops backed by heavy artillery waged a four-front assault Tuesday against the strongholds of Al Qaeda militants in the south, with US troops for the first time helping direct the offensive from a nearby desert air base-turned-command center.
Yemeni military officials said dozens of US troops were operating from al-Annad air base, about 45 miles from the main battle zones, coordinating assaults and airstrikes and providing information to Yemeni forces.
The officials said it was the most direct American involvement yet in the country’s expanding campaign against Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on US soil from its hideouts in the impoverished country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Most recently, this month it emerged that the CIA thwarted a plot to down a US-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber’s underwear. But the planned bomber was actually a double agent who turned the device over to the US government.
The offensive is the most concerted yet aiming to uproot Al Qaeda militants who since last year have held a swath of territory, including the provincial capital Zinjibar and several other towns, in the south of the country. One Yemeni military official said the country’s defense minister and an American general, whom he did not identify, were jointly overseeing the assault.
The Yemeni military officials, who are familiar with the workings of the army in the south, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive cooperation. The US Embassy in Sana could not be reached for comment.
In the assault on Zinjibar, Yemeni troops pushed into the center of the city, though they did not outright control it, one official said. Military helicopters flew over the city for the first time in an indication militants had lost their heavy weaponry capable of shooting down the helicopters, the official said.
The troops “can for the first time catch a glimpse of the torched government buildings’’ that Al Qaeda’s fighters had hunkered down in during recent battles, the official said.
Al Qaeda militants seized Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, last year while the country was mired in the political turmoil of the popular uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, once a US ally, finally stepped down in February under a Gulf-mediated, US-backed deal.
For the past three months, the Al Qaeda militants have carried out bloody attacks on Yemeni forces and raided weapons depots, capturing thousands of weapons, including assault rifles, machine-guns, and even tanks, armored vehicles, and rockets.
Yemen’s military has been largely ineffectual in uprooting the militants. The force is ill-equipped, poorly trained, with weak intelligence capabilities, and is riven with conflicted loyalties, since some commanders remain close to Saleh.
Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, however, has vowed to make the fight against Al Qaeda a priority. He moved commanders of army units, removed Saleh’s relatives in key security positions and tried to reach out to tribal leaders in the troubled south to form a strong front in the face of the militant group.
On Tuesday, the international leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, released an audio recording online aimed at swaying public opinion against Hadi, calling him a US agent and a traitor for having served as vice president during the “corrupt rule’’ of Saleh.