The government's offensive is the most concerted campaign against
al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - seen by Washington as one
of the group's most lethal wings - in nearly two years. The group
has been blamed for deadly attacks against security forces,
foreigners and oil and gas facilities.
Keen to prevent about any spillover of violence into neighboring oil
power Saudi Arabia and the use of Yemen as a springboard for attacks
on Western targets, government forces announced they had entered the
last major militant bastion, Azzan, that they had been seeking to
capture in an offensive that has lasted 10 days.
The European Union has limited its presence in Yemen to essential
staff and France has restricted the movement of its diplomats, the
EU and Paris said on Thursday after the United States announced the
suspension of operations in its embassy.
"The EU delegation remains fully operational. Like other diplomatic
and international actors in Sanaa, we are limiting the presence to
essential staff and reviewing our security measures," said Michael
Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A spokeswoman for France's Foreign Ministry said its security level
in Yemen was at maximum level.
"There is heightened vigilance... Following the recent events we
have introduced a restriction of movement for diplomats. We are
evaluating the situation but (embassy closure) is not a decision we
have taken," she said.
The United States said late on Wednesday it had suspended operations
in its embassy in Sanaa because of recent attacks against Western
interests in the country.
Britain's Foreign Office issued a new travel alert on Thursday,
advising against all travel to Yemen and strongly urging British
nationals to leave the Arabian Peninsula state.
The West's precautionary security moves followed increasingly bold
al Qaeda attacks on Yemeni government and foreign targets in big
cities, even after the offensive against militants in remote reaches
of south Yemen was launched.
A French security agent was shot dead on Monday, the latest in a
string of assassinations and kidnappings of Westerners in the
capital Sanaa and second city Aden.
The army's onslaught against AQAP will continue despite the
military's entry into Azzan in Shabwa province, a military source
told Reuters. "The entry into Azzan does not mean the end of the
battle with al Qaeda, and we will continue to pursue it into the
mountainous and desert regions into which they fled."
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Government troops captured the mountainous al-Mahfad area in Abyan
province earlier this week, leaving Azzan in Shabwa as the
militants' main remaining redoubt.
"An official military source in the third military region said that
units of the armed forces and the security have entered ...
Azzan...," a Defence Ministry statement said. "The source said
security and stability were gradually returning to regions which
have been cleansed of terrorists".
Azzan, with a population of about 50,000, and some other towns in
the south were declared Islamic emirates in 2011 by Ansar al-Sharia,
an AQAP affiliate.
The army drove them out in 2012 but militants later rebuilt their
presence, exploiting a traditionally weak hold on the region by the
central government based in Sanaa and seen by many southerners as
"We hope that by the entrance of the army and the return of state
authority to Azzan and other areas, that this will be the end of
worry and turmoil that we've been living with for years," Azzan
resident Mubarak Mahdi said.
The state news agency Saba reported that Yemen's defence minister
was in Azzan and a celebration of the army's victory was taking
Major powers are keen on Yemen curbing the Islamist insurgents and
restoring order in the south to prevent threats to the world's No. 1
oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door.
AQAP is one of al Qaeda's most active branches and has a record of
hatching attacks against international airliners.
Yemeni security forces on Wednesday killed a prominent militant
suspected of masterminding attacks on Westerners, including a French
security agent gunned down on Tuesday, the country's supreme
security committee said.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Adrian Croft in
Brussels, Lionel Laurent in Paris and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai; Writing
by Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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