DAMASCUS, SYRIA (1:30 P.M.) – Over the past week, Yemeni tribesmen – heavily backed by the Saudi-led coalition and military advisers from the US and United Arab Emirates – began encroaching upon jihadist controlled areas in southern Yemen, looking to drive Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) out of Shabwa province.
The offensive is led by some 2,000 Yemeni and coalition troops – along with a handful of US special forces – and started off with probing attacks, ultimately looking to wrestle control of the AQAP-held towns of Habban and Azzan. The governorate is also rich in oil and gas, making it a significant prize.
Spearheading the operation is the so-called ‘Shabwani Elite’, led by UAE commander Mohammed Salem Al Qumishi, which has been supplied generously with armored vehicles and pickup trucks ahead of the offensive. The group waves the flag of Southern Yemen and has thus far secured 13 checkpoints and three districts from AQAP.
Since February 28, the US Air Force has conducted around 80 airstrikes against AQAP insurgents in Yemen, Captain Jeff Davis told reporters in Washington on Friday. In comparison, just 38 sorties were conducted by US warplanes in 2016 across Yemen.
The renewed offensive represents the single largest military operation against Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen since Saudi-backed troops seized the port city of Mukalla in April 2016, after AQAP had used it as a base from which to storm through the southern part of the country.
Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, has been convulsed by civil strife for more than two years. In the west, Houthi forces ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, considered a close US and Saudi ally.
In addition to sharing intelligence with its Yemeni and Emirati partners, the United States is providing midair refueling and overhead reconnaissance for forces involved in the operation, Captain Davis said.
Moreover, the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, a collection of United States Navy ships packed with Marines, is in the region and could assist the operation, as other American amphibious groups have in the past, Pentagon officials said this weekend.