SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni armed forces on Thursday swept al-Qaida fighters out of a district in the country’s south, one of the main goals of the major offensive waged by the military the past two weeks, the Defence Ministry said, amid fears of retaliatory attacks which officials say prompted the closure of the US embassy in the capital as a precaution.
The ministry said that dozens of suspected militants have been killed and captured in the past week as troops and allied tribal fighters have seized a string of al-Qaida-held areas along a 60-mile (100-kilometre) stretch of highway snaking through the rugged desert mountains of the south, starting from the Mahfad region.
On Thursday, they took over militant positions in the district of Azzan, seizing control of the district centre, the ministry said.
Troops seized CDs and other documents that details plots by al-Qaida to carry out attacks in several Yemeni provinces, it said. Security officials said some militants fled into nearby mountains, and that troops were clashing with them sporadically. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
“Security and stability will return gradually to the district, which has been purged while the chase continues to hunt down the evil elements … in all directions,” the ministry said.
Backed by the United States, which has waged a heavy campaign of drone strikes, Yemen has intensified its battle the past two years against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, first in 2012 driving its fighters out of towns and cities they took over in the south and now the current offensive is targeting them in the remote mountain hideouts where they have taken refuge and from which they have launched attacks around the country.
The United States temporarily closed its embassy in the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday because of recent attacks on Westerners, the State Department said. A day before the closure, gunmen in Sanaa opened fire on three French security guards working with the European Union mission, killing one and wounding another.
Early Thursday, Yemeni officials beefed up security around Western embassies, increasing patrols in the districts where they are located, and armoured vehicles were seen stationed near the American mission.
On Wednesday, Yemen’s highest security body announced it had killed the ringleader of the cell that attacked the French security guards and carried out other attacks on Westerners in the capital. Security forces uncovered the cell’s location and when members of the cell left the building Wednesday morning, police attacked them, killing Wael al-Walei, identified as the cell’s leader, the Supreme Security Committee said.