Thursday, April 19, 2012

Yemen: Popular Committees Take Control

By Yaser al-Yafei
 Al-Akhbar English
April 19, 2012

A defected army soldier pushes a disabled person across a street as barricades erected by defected army forces are dismantled in Sanaa 7 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

After multiple defeats suffered by the army at the hands of Ansar al-Sharia, local communities and tribes in Southern Yemen have been taking charge of their own security, and doing a much more effective job at maintaining it.

Recent months have witnessed an unprecedented escalation of violence in the southern provinces of Yemen. Armed groups affiliated with the Ansar al-Sharia organization, which is thought to be connected with Al-Qaeda, have mounted a series of large scale offensives, over-running numerous army bases and positions in the province of Abyan and adjoining districts and killing scores of troops.

Last week, the fiercest fighting yet broke out when the militants launched a concerted attack on army units deployed on the approaches to the town of Lawdar. The militants forced the Yemeni soldiers to abandon their bases and retreat. Members of Ansar al-Sharia were able to then seize the weapons and materiel the soldiers had left behind.

The assailants then attempted to take Lawdar itself, but encountered fierce resistance from members of the town’s popular committees supported by tribesmen from the surrounding district. The militants were beaten back and retreated into the mountains.

Clashes are continuing, both in Lawdar and the adjoining district of Mudiyah, where local people have also established popular committees for self-defense.

There has been a profusion of calls for the formation of similar committees in other parts of the south.The emergence of popular committees in various parts of Abyan is a relatively new phenomenon, prompted by the general breakdown of security in much of the province and consequent attempts by militant groups to seize control. While it has only come to public attention in the past few weeks, such groups have been forming since last year.

Lawdar’s popular committees were formed about one year ago, when militants mounted an earlier attack on the town and nearby army positions, forcing many inhabitants to flee, explains journalist Saleh Abu Awthal, who has followed the development of the popular committees in Abyan from the outset.

The attack prompted local leaders, heads and representatives of all the district’s tribes, and local representatives of political groups to call a meeting to discuss matters of defense. The gathering resulted in a number of decisions being made. A committee was formed to seek talks with Ansar al-Sharia, and others set up to perform administrative functions in the town, and to guard public and private property against looting.

The various committees were run by a coordinating body which was named the Lawdar Youth Assembly, but came to be known as the popular committees, in which all local political and social groups were represented. Within a short period of time, they had managed to secure the town and fend of all attempts by Ansar al-Sharia to invade it.

The militants retaliated by sending suicide bombers into the town, who targeted and killed several of the committees’ leaders, including one of their key founders Sheikh Tawfiq al-Junaidi, according to Awthal.

Nevertheless, the committees took over the running of all state functions and public services and facilities in the district, including security. They regulated the prices of food and petroleum products, and provided policing and protection, filling the vacuum left by the army and security forces while rapidly gaining the trust and support of the population at large.

“Their steadfastness when facing up to the armed groups was epic, even though the popular committees are very lightly armed and have no military training,” says Awthal. “But thanks to their determination and their love of their land, they taught the extremists a lesson.”

Last week, Ansar al-Sharia launched a ferocious attack on Lawdar, employing tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons seized from the Yemeni army in other parts of Abyan. The multi-pronged assault seemed to be aimed at punishing the popular committees and deterring the formation of similar groups elsewhere. But they held out, and with the support of local tribal fighters inflicted heavy losses on the assailants – in stark contrast to the Yemeni army.

As a result, there has been a profusion of calls for the formation of similar committees in other parts of the south, in light of the unprecedented breakdown of security, and the multiple defeats and weapons seizures suffered by the army at the hands of Ansar al-Sharia.

Many suspect that the militants have been deliberately allowed to make gains in the southern provinces.Many suspect that the militants have been deliberately allowed to make gains in the southern provinces as part of a bid to stifle calls for southern independence or the formation of a federation by keeping southern Yemenis preoccupied with security concerns and infighting.

One of the leaders of the popular committees in Lawdar, Abdallah Sbeit, told Al-Akhbar that in the current fighting in the district, the Yemeni army’s role has been confined to long-range bombardment of the militants with artillery or airstrikes. “We are the ones doing the actual fighting on the ground,” he said.

Speaking by phone, Sbeit said 28 members of the popular committees or allied tribal fighters had been killed in the latest clashes, along with tens of militants including several of their commanders. He said there were foreign fighters among them, including Somalis, Saudis, and Afghans. “They were taught a lesson they will not forget, and they were pushed back to remote mountains,” he said.

Sbeit said Ansar al-Sharia responded to the setback by shelling the densely populated town center with artillery and mortars – killing two children and a woman in one barrage, and damaging many homes. They have also tried to send suicide bombers and booby-trapped cars in.

“But these actions will not deter us,” he pledged. “We will not leave our homes and repeat the experience of Zinjibar,” the provincial capital, which was overrun by Islamist militants in May last year.

“We will stand fast until these elements have been completely expelled from Lawdar completely.”

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