Monday, November 5, 2012

Tribal chief suspected of al Qaeda link triggers Yemen standoff

ADEN (Reuters) - A tribal leader suspected of links to al Qaeda's active Yemeni wing returned to his home in southern Yemen on Monday, triggering an armed standoff between his supporters and militiamen allied to the government, tribal sources said.

Tarek al-Fadli, who was raised in Saudi Arabia and fought in Afghanistan, leads a major tribe in the restive Abyan province and had taken refuge in the mountains over the summer after a U.S. military-backed onslaught drove militants linked to al Qaeda from southern towns.

The standoff highlights the challenges facing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in trying to assert state authority following last year's uprising in Yemen, which adjoins the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.

After president Ali Abdullah Saleh finally bowed to popular revolt and stepped down in February, the U.S.-backed Yemeni military swept into the south and wrested back a number of towns from al Qaeda-linked militants, sometimes after heavy fighting.

"The return of Fadli to his house triggered protests from those allied to the army who surrounded his house and asked him to go back where he came from," a source allied to the government told Reuters.

Protesters asked the government to intervene to get him out of the town, the source said, adding that a security committee would meet on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

A source close to Fadli told Reuters that he was at his home in Zinjibar and that no one had the right to force him out.

The U.S. military has intensified a campaign of missile strikes on suspected Islamist militants in recent months, often using pilotless drones.

Yemen's wealthier Gulf neighbors and Washington are concerned that al Qaeda and other Islamist fighters operating there could pose a threat to Saudi Arabia and to nearby oil shipping channels.

Hadi, praised by the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa as being more effective against al Qaeda than his predecessor, was quoted as saying during a trip to the United States in September that he personally approved every attack.

While Washington usually avoids comment on the strikes in Yemen, the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. operations, says as many as 56 civilians have been killed this year by drones.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; and by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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