Al-Qaida militants who have recently overrun the town of Radda proposed to the Yemeni government the release of 400 jailed operatives in return for the group’s withdrawal. Such domestic insecurity aroused fears in the government and the media over the collapse of a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal.
Tariq al-Dhahab, the commander of the al-Qaida militants in Radda in al-Bayda province, some 130 km southeast of the capital Sanaa, told the tribal mediators that his group would retreat from the town if the transitional government sets free 400 al-Qaida convicts imprisoned in Sanaa, a government official told Xinhua on Wednesday.
“They also demanded the court to introduce the Sharia Islamic Law in the town,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
An official of the Yemeni intelligence Political Security Agency told Xinhua “nearly all al-Qaida prisoners in south and southeast Yemen were rescued over the past months by their fellows, like what happened in provinces of Aden, Shabwa and Lahj. Or the prisoners broke out on their own by digging tunnels, like what happened in Mukalla on June, 22, 2011.”
But in Sanaa, there is still a large number of al-Qaida operatives held in prison, said the intelligence official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Al-Qaida’s demand was immediately rejected by the government and intelligence officials in Sanaa. “The government will not agree to the demand of the terrorists of releasing their jailed operatives,” according to a brief statement by a senior official of the Yemeni government.
In response, the Yemeni government ordered the al-Bayda-based Republican Guard 26th Mechanized Brigade and security forces to be on high alert and wait for orders to raid Radda in case that the terrorists refuse to withdraw or surrender, according to military and security officials.
Local tribesmen also vowed to stand with the army in fighting al-Qaida militants.
On Sunday, Radda, a town of nearly 60,000 people, fell into the hands of some 1000 militants of the regional wing of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) led by al-Dhahab.
Al-Dhahab is a relative of the Yemeni-born U.S.-slain cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He hosted Awlaki for months before the radical cleric was killed by unmanned drone last September, according to a source close to al-Qaida group.
The takeover of Radda, which came after AQAP took full control of a series of swaths and cities in restive north, south and southeast Yemen, raised fears among Yemeni officials over the collapse of a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal.
The head of the parliamentary ruling bloc, Sultan al-Barakani, told Xinhua on Wednesday that “the recent security deterioration and al-Qaida threats may hinder the transitional government from securing the presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 21.”
Barakani made the statement upon his departure of the parliament, where the lawmakers failed again to debate an immunity law for outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal.
The GCC deal was signed by Saleh and his opponents in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 23, 2011. Under the deal, Saleh’s deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi will be the sole candidate for the presidential elections.
Barakani said the session for debating the draft law was postponed to Jan. 23, blaming the absence of Prime Minister Mohamed Basindwa and ministers of justice and legal affairs.
Barakani’s remarks came a day after Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qerbi said that al-Qaida’s grip on Radda could delay the planned presidential elections. Such statement angered the opposition leaders who blamed “Saleh’s aides of handing over Radda to the terrorists.”
Al-Bayda province, where Radda is located, is the ancestral home of AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan. He escaped along with about 24 others from Sanaa’s intelligence prison in 2006 and formed the most dangerous regional terrorist network of al-Qaida militants in the Arabian Peninsula.