Yemenis return to area run by Islamic militants

- 15 January 2012

SANAA: At least 2,000 displaced Yemenis have returned home to a restive area in the country's south that has been under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants for more than seven months. Their return on Friday to Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan province, provides some of the first civilian views of the Islamic rule the militants have begun to set up in the poorly governed hinterlands of the Arab world's poorest country: A zone where armed men from a various Arab countries move about in new Toyota trucks and vow to implement strict Islamic law.

The militants have taken advantage of the security collapse across Yemen during 11 months of mass protests calling for the ouster of longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A wily politician who has ruled for 33 years, Saleh is due to transfer power later this month to his vice president under a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Persian Gulf neighbors.

The U.S. has long considered Saleh a necessary ally in combatting Yemen's active al-Qaida branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organization's most dangerous franchises.

Militants began seizing territory in Yemen's southern Abyan province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May. They call their organization Ansar al-Shariah, or Partisans of Shariah, which is linked to al-Qaida.

Yemeni security forces have been trying unsuccessfully to push them out since then in fierce fighting that has caused regular casualties on both sides. The conflict has forced tens of thousands of civilians from Zinjibar and the surrounding area to flee, many to the port city of Aden. (...)