ADEN, Yemen — More than 200 suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen have taken control of the south Yemen city of Zinjibar after fighting with security forces that left 16 people dead, officials and witnesses said on Sunday.
The witnesses said that most residents had fled Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province with a population of more than 20,000, to nearby Aden, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) away.
Yemen’s opposition accused embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh of having allowed Zinjibar to be overrun by the gunmen to raise fears concerning Al-Qaeda and boost his flagging international support.
The suspected Al-Qaeda fighters “were able to gain control of the city of Zinjibar … and took over all government facilities,” except for the headquarters of the 25th mechanised brigade, which is besieged by militants, the security official said.
Witnesses said that the gunmen on Sunday were still battling members of the besieged brigade.
“We will fight until the last bullet, and we will not surrender to the gunmen who killed our colleagues,” an officer from the brigade said, reached by telephone.
Residents who fled reported heavy fighting in the city on Friday and Saturday, and said the attackers had freed dozens of prisoners from the main jail in Zinjibar.
One witness said on condition of anonymity that the gunmen executed soldiers who surrendered, and that residents were not able to bury them.
“Most of the residents of Zinjibar have left,” another witness said.
Nazir Ahmed Said, one of those who fled to Aden, the south’s main city, told AFP he left because Zinjibar “is under the control of gunmen who say they are from Al-Qaeda.”
“Saturday morning, the gunmen called on residents by loudspeaker to go out and reopen their shops, but few answered the call because they are afraid,” he added.
The security official estimated that more than 200 militants had attacked the city.
“The lack of concern from the authorities is unfortunate,” he said, adding that “the leadership in Abyan province left the area before it exploded.”
He was among the last security officials to quit the city, he said.
Five soldiers and a civilian were killed on Friday, two other security officials said, while residents of Zinjibar said they found the bodies of 10 soldiers, bringing the toll from the fighting there to at least 16.
One of the officials said that another two soldiers were killed on Friday in clashes with suspected Al-Qaeda fighters in the town of Loder, also in Abyan province.
In a statement, the Common Forum parliamentary opposition coalition accused Saleh of having “delivered Zinjibar to groups that he has formed and armed, to continue to utilise the spectre of Al-Qaeda to frighten regional and international parties.”
It denounced “the criminal plotting of Ali Abdullah Saleh” and reiterated its call for “the immediate departure” of the president.
Saleh has since January faced protests calling for him to quit office after 33 years in power.
On May 22, he refused to ink a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored accord that would have seen him cede power within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Saleh had the previous day warned that Al-Qaeda would benefit from the fall of his regime.
“The departure of the regime … means the departure of Yemeni unity and the republic,” he said.
“If the regime goes, Al-Qaeda will flourish in (the provinces of) Hadramawt and Shabwa and Abyan, and the situation will be worse,” he said, addressing “our friends in the United States and the European Union.”
Saleh has been a key US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has claimed attacks against US and other Western interests.
The clashes in Zinjibar are not the first between Yemeni security forces and suspected Al-Qaeda members in Abyan province.
Security forces engaged in days of fighting in Loder in August 2010 before pushing alleged Al-Qaeda militants out of the city. According to an AFP count based on official and medical sources, 33 people were killed in the fighting.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US Navy SEALs in a May 2 raid in Pakistan.