Tribal groups attempt to broker peace in Abyan, Shabwa

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Ali Saeed (author), Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki (author)

SANA'A, May 6—Separate tribal groups are attempting to broker peace between the military and alleged Al-Qaeda militants in Abyan and Shabwa governorates after a week of fighting.

Tribal sheikhs from the Bakazim tribe in Abyan governorate told the Yemen Times on Tuesday that they are seeking to mediate between the army and Al-Qaeda militants to bring an end to the fighting.

The tribe is located in the Al-Mahfad district, which has been the scene of heavy fighting over the last few days. The tribe says it is seeking to avoid further civilian deaths and wants the military to evacuate the area.

The Defense Ministry's news site on Tuesday quoted an anonymous military source who said that the security forces would not negotiate with Al-Qaeda under any circumstances.

"There is no choice for Yemen but to eliminate terrorists from the country,” the source said.

Saleh Al-Kazimi, a tribal sheikh from Al-Mahfad, told the Yemen Times that the tribe held a meeting on Monday and agreed to offer itself as a mediator between the army and Al-Qaeda.

“Although we support the army in its fight against Al-Qaeda militants, we want to stop this war because it will destroy the district. We want to avoid the destruction,” said Al-Kazimi.

“Some Al-Qaeda militants belong to Al-Mahfad district. We want them to hand over their weapons, repent, and to live their lives like other citizens. We, the sheikhs, decided to force our tribesmen who are engaged in the fighting to give up their weapons. We have assured them that they will not be killed or handed over to the government,” Al-Kazimi added.

During the meeting it was decided that ten sheikhs would negotiate with other tribal leaders who are lending support to Al-Qaeda, while four other sheikhs have been assigned to negotiate with the leadership of the Fourth Military Region as a precursor to mediation efforts, Al-Kazimi said.

A high-ranking officer from the Fourth Military Region told the Yemen Times that the force has not yet met with the sheikhs but that they would reject mediation efforts.

Residents voiced varying views on the possibility of mediation. Some expressed concern that mediation would give militants an opportunity to re-group in a different area.

In Shabwa governorate, which neighbors Abyan, local tribal leaders on Tuesday evening agreed on a peace plan that would suspend confrontations in the area, Sheikh Hamid Al-Karibi, a prominent local leader in Shabwa, told the Yemen Times.

The plan would see local tribesmen helping security forces deploy in the Maifa district of Shabwa, while Al-Qaeda militants in the district would cease attacks on the military, surrender their heavier weapons, and turn in foreign fighters, according to Al-Karibi.

Armed forces in Shabwa could not be reached for comment on the proposed agreement.

Saeed Ubaid Al-Jimhi, chairman of the Al-Jemhi Studies Center that has conducted research on Al-Qaeda in Yemen, told the Yemen Times that "tribes in the war zone are affected negatively by the fighting in their areas and that is why they [tribesmen] propose mediation."

"They want Al-Qaeda militants out of their areas," he said.

He doubted that Al-Qaeda would turn in its foreign fighters to the Yemeni army or hand over weapons.

The army entered Jawl Raida city, the capital of Maifa district, on Wednesday morning, according to Salim Al-Sayel, a journalist in Shabwa.

The situation has been relatively calm since Tuesday evening after a week of clashes between the army and the militants, said one soldier who is taking part in the fighting in Shabwa.

The solider told the Yemen Times that 13 troops were killed in an ambush late last week.

"We do not know how many militants were killed because when they attack us, we fire back and they flee," said the soldier, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the press.

Civilians in Jawl Raida and areas near the conflict zone have already fled their homes to Ataq city, Al-Sayel said.

Shabwa Alhdath, a local news website, on Sunday quoted Heilf Al-Fadhool of the Rights and Freedoms group, a Yemeni NGO, as saying "the army and the armed groups in some areas [of Shabwa] use citizens as human shields and they [citizens] are vulnerable to blockade and displacement."

"The army must exercise the maximum level of caution when civilians are in a war zone," the organization stressed.

According to Al-Sayel, the conflict has resulted in food shortages and massive price hikes.

Fahd Ahmed Ali, a soldier in the Fourth Military Region which is operating in Abyan, said General Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, the commander of the sector, gave Al-Qaeda militants a 48-hour grace period commencing on Monday evening to hand over their weapons. According to Ali, the general warned that the military would enter the Dhaiqa valley, where some militants have stationed themselves, if the order was not complied with.

On Wednesday, the state-run Saba new agency reported that the army had entered Dhaiqa valley.

The Defense Ministry also said Al-Qaeda militants blew-up a government compound in Al-Mahfad on Tuesday. The Yemen Times could not independently verify the claim.

The military, along with the Popular Committees, began the offensive on militants in Abyan and Shabwa on April 29. The fighting has left thousands displaced and scores dead on both sides.