SANAA: Yemen’s president is facing a new challenge to his authority over the military, with the powerful son of his predecessor disobeying orders and elevating a relative to head a security unit to protect his father.
One of President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi’s main goals has been to purge the military of his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists and family members to enable reforms and restore security to a country that has been in turmoil for more than a year.
These steps are seen as essential to enable Yemen’s armed forces to confront Al-Qaeda-linked militants, who have taken over parts of the south while the country has been distracted by the power struggle in the capital.
A senior military official in the Defense Ministry said Sunday that former President Saleh continues to meddle in the country’s affairs.
Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of the former president, commands the powerful Special Forces and Republican Guard, among the country’s best trained troops. His appointment of a relative, Tarek Mohammad, to head his father’s security unit was direct insubordination to Hadi.
Hadi had already demoted Mohammad from head of the Presidential Guards to head a provincial military unit, an order Mohammad and the younger Saleh refused to obey.
The military official said Hadi has rejected the new appointment.
In response, Mohammad refused to hand over his current job during a meeting attended by the U.N. representative to Yemen.
The official was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Another relative rejected an order to resign as head of the air force for weeks, finally stepping down last week. That dispute forced a shutdown of Yemen’s commercial airport for a day.
Hadi took over from Saleh in February following nearly a year of street protests. In his purge efforts, he faces the risk that his predecessor’s loyalists might cause massive disruptions rather than go quietly.
Earlier this month, the Saleh said in a statement that his loyalists should maintain leading roles in running the country’s affairs to ensure stability, in clear defiance against attempts by his successor to purge them.
The ongoing power struggle could hamper the new government’s offensive against Al-Qaeda militants. In recent weeks, troops have been engaged in daily battles with the militant group in southern Yemeni provinces.
Fierce clashes killed at least 21 people, including 18 Al-Qaeda militants, Monday near the southern Yemeni town of Lawder, which Al-Qaeda is trying to capture, a local official said. The other dead were an army officer and two tribal volunteers aiding the military.
The source said the Al-Qaeda militants were forced to retreat in the direction of Amin, 12 km south of Lawder.
Witnesses said the fighting lasted for several hours, and that air force planes had bombed militant positions in the mountains southeast of Lawder, from which columns of smoke could be seen rising.
A tank in the hands of the militants, as well as two vehicles mounted with machine guns and ammunition stocks were destroyed, other sources said.
Al-Qaeda seized Lawder in August 2010, but the army eventually drove the militants out.
Lawder lies 150 km northeast of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, which was seized last May by the Partisans of Shariah, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni security officials said Sunday three suspected Al-Qaeda militants had been killed when a missile hit their SUV in northeastern Yemen. The officials had no details on the source of the attack or the identity of the three. U.S. drones have been active over Yemen, tracking and striking Al-Qaeda operatives with missiles.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The militant group said Sunday it had released 73 soldiers captured by its fighters during battles with government forces in the south.
The terror network said in an emailed statement that the freeing of the soldiers followed mediation efforts by tribal elders and senior clerics. Relatives of some freed prisoners confirmed the release.
The soldiers were freed in the city of Jaar in the southern province of Abyan in a ceremony attended by top leaders of the terror network in Yemen, including military leader Qassem al-Rimi, witnesses and the statement said.