Yemen southern army commander Qatan dies in suicide attack

Wreck of car after suicide attack in Aden The force of the suicide blast destroyed the commander's car

The Yemeni army commander leading the fight against militants in the south of the country has been killed in a suicide attack, officials say.

Gen Salem Ali Qatan died in the port city of Aden when a suicide bomber attacked the car he was travelling in.

Yemen is battling militants linked to al-Qaeda who have taken control of parts of the south of the country.

The army has recently recaptured several strongholds in the restive southern province of Abyan.

The Yemeni defence ministry said Gen Qatan had been travelling in a three-car convoy when the bomber threw himself at the general's SUV and detonated his explosives.

The commander was killed and four security guards and a passer-by seriously wounded, the ministry said.

Analysis

The assassination of Gen Qatan is a double blow for the Yemeni government.

As the military commander in the south he was leading the ongoing rout of al-Qaeda's forces from ground they have taken over the past year.

As a new appointee, personally chosen for the post by the new president this year, he was also working to restructure the army following the stepping down of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February.

This restructuring is seen as vital if Yemen is to navigate its way out of the bitter inter-tribal and clan rivalries that have seen open artillery duels in the capital Sanaa between competing powerbases.

If the suicide assassin does prove to have been sent by al-Qaeda then this will be the second time this year the group has scored a major blow against the government, following a suicide bombing in May that killed nearly 100 soldiers.

The ministry identified the bomber as a Somali national but gave no further details.

Yemeni militants quoted by the Chinese news agency Xinhua on Monday claimed they had assassinated Gen Qatan in response to the army offensive in the south.

"One of our jihadists succeeded in assassinating Gen Salem Ali Qatan who had led a month-long offensive against our families and strongholds in Abyan," a spokesperson told Xinhua.

"We were forced to flee our cities. We have not lost the war. Our war against crusaders will continue till we take full revenge."

Gen Qatan was appointed in March shortly after newly elected President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took office.

'Huge loss'

Ali Mansur, a senior army commander and close aide to Gen Qatan, described the general's death as "a huge loss for Yemen".

Speaking to AFP by phone, he gave Gen Qatan full credit for recent successes against insurgents.

General Salem Ali Qatan on 17 June 2012 General Salem Ali Qatan was Yemen's southern army commander

"In just three months, Qatan achieved major progress towards chasing down and eliminating [the militants]," he said.

Correspondents say militants are showing they still have the ability to strike despite losing ground to the army.

An al-Qaeda-linked insurgency and separatist unrest have blighted the south of Yemen for years.

Last year, empowered by uprisings against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Islamists consolidated their control over Abyan.

In a recent offensive, the Yemeni army recaptured the towns of Shuqra, Zinjibar and Jaar.

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The US has sent a team of military advisers to Yemen to support the government's efforts.

Meanwhile, fighters from the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia - linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - are reported to have completely withdrawn from Azzan, in Shabwa province bordering Abyan.

Azzan has recently been under fire from government forces.

Privately-owned Yemeni newspaper Akhbar al-Yawm said the fighters left following mediation by local tribal leaders.

They are believed to have retreated to safe havens in the mountains where they enjoy tribal protection.

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