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Source: Yemen Times

Fifteen soldiers were killed in two separate incidents on Friday and Saturday in Hadramout governorate by members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

On Friday night AQAP members killed 14 soldiers of the 135th Infantry Brigade in Seyoun district, Hadramout. The soldiers were captured from a civilian transport bus; four of them were decapitated, the remaining ten were shot dead.

Another solider was killed on Saturday when the same brigade was combing the neighboring al-Qatan disctrict, according to a high ranking officer in the 135th Infantry Brigade who asked to remain anonymous for fear of his life.

Two further soldiers and eight AQAP militants were killed in fighting in Al-Qatan earlier that week, while twelve members of AQAP were arrested.

“A mistake was made by the brigade: we did not consider the soldiers’ safety, and that AQAP’s armed men had spread in that area, so we sent soldiers home via buses, owned by Al-Baraq Company, to drive them to Sana’a. But the eyes and spies of AQAP, inside or outside the brigade, informed the armed men and they ambushed the soldiers in Al-Hazem area and killed and slaughtered the soldiers,” the officer told the Yemen Times.

Explaining why the soldiers were using civilian transport to begin with, the officer said, “after the large battles with AQAP militants on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday [in Al-Qatan area], we had a huge victory. After that we had very high morale and did not expect that AQAP would ambush us, so we decided to send some soldiers to their families to take some rest as a reward for holding their ground, because they had spent the Eid holiday with the brigade.”

The officer added, “now, we are deployed in Seyoun and the entire city is under our control, and we will pursue the armed men. The perpetrators will not escape punishment.”

Eyewitness account

Eyewitness Ameen Baroufaied, who was aboard the bus that the 14 soldiers were captured from, posted his account of events online. Baroufaied confirmed his story to the Yemen Times over the phone, adding that he is still too shaken up from that day’s horrifying events to talk about them more.

“After Maghrib Prayer in Seyoun the land transport bus started to move, carrying armed soldiers that seemed afraid and were wearing parts of their army uniforms which made it obvious that they were soldiers. Before we could leave, an armed man boarded the bus and walked around it which made the soldiers more nervous and afraid,” he began.

Baroufaied recounts that while the bus was heading toward the airport, taking the main street toward Shibam area, the bus driver was informed that AQAP members were waiting on the road, so he went back to Seyoun and took an alternative road, Seyoun-Hawtah.

When soldiers in the bus noticed that armed men on motorbikes were following them, civilian passengers convinced them to hide anything which would identify them as military personnel and to change into civilian clothing. The soldiers did, hiding their guns under their seats.

“If we had not done that there would have been a massacre on the bus, because we heard the soldiers were planning a confrontation in case we were pulled over by AQAP members,” he said.

At Al-Hazem area in Seyoun district, the bus was stopped at a checkpoint manned by armed men. “A veiled armed man boarded the bus and ordered us to evacuate. We exited the bus and there were more than 50 armed men, most of them from Hadramout and veiled,” Baroufaied explains.

He recalls that they “looked at the passengers’ IDs and apologized to us because we are civilians. They laid the soldiers on the ground while they were crying and screaming, and the camera was recording everything.”

Jalal Baleedi, who used to be the AQAP commander in Abyan between 2011-12, then spoke to the civilian passengers.

“Baleedi came and gave us a speech, mainly about how the soldiers are filthy Rawafidh [people who reject Islamic authority], how they let the Houthis have their way in the north and came here to kill Sunnis in the south,” Baroufaied said.

The militants then drove away with the soldiers, still alive, in a Toyota Hilux, while Baleedi left in a plain Toyota Corolla, Baroufaied reported. He added that it was only one soldier who was left behind with the other civilians as he could not be identified as military personnel.

Fighting in Al-Qatan

This tragic incident came after a violent week in Al-Qatan, where fighting broke out periodically from Tuesday, August 5, until Thursday, August 7, between the army and AQAP militants. In the course of fighting two soldiers and eight militants were killed, and twelve members of AQAP were arrested.

On Tuesday, August 7, fighting first broke out in Al-Qatan. AQAP members attacked the district’s government headquarters one day later, on Wednesday, again engaging in fighting with the army. Although the army announced its full control over Al-Qatan, and its expelling of the gunmen, on Wednesday evening.AQAP members were again visible in Al-Qatan on Thursday when periodic fighting renewed.

One week ago, the 135th Infantry Brigade moved from Lahj governorate to Seyoun, Hadramout to reinforce the armed forces already positioned there.

The brigade participated in the wars against the Houthis between 2004 and 2010. After that it relocated from Sa’ada to Aden, then to nearby Abyan to fight AQAP in 2012.

Along with the 135th Infantry Brigade, now positioned in Seyoun and Al-Qatan, the Al-Salam Battalion arrived from Sana’a last week specifically to secure Seyoun and to support the 37th Armored Brigade, which was already stationed in the area.

According to Dr. Saeed Al-Jamhi, the head of the Al-Jamhi Studies and Research Center which conducts studies about AQAP in Yemen, “AQAP militants have a major presence in Hadramout governorate and their numbers have doubled during the past two months.”

Rising fear of what’s to come

“We hold the Ministry of Defense responsible for what happened to our colleagues and we demand that the leadership of the ministry, as well as the brigade’s command and the 1st Military Command in Hadramout [which is responsible for the 135th Infantry Brigade] be held accountable,” said Abdulrahaman Mohammad Ahmed, one of the soldiers in the 135th Infantry Brigade.

In his opinion, secure transportation should have been provided to the brigade’s soldiers by aircraft. “They know we are in continuing battles with AQAP militants and that the area is not secure.”

He added, “right now we are not leaving our military bases until there are aircrafts to transport us. We are fearing for our lives.”

Gruesome video and photos of the killings were taken from AQAP’s Twitter account and circulated on news and social media websites. They were met with considerable public outrage from locals and government officials alike condemning the act as barbaric.

Abdulrazzaq Al-Jamal, a journalist specialized in AQAP affairs, said that “the way in which those soldiers were killed will distance AQAP from Yemeni’s hearts; it is a very heinous method.”

Friday’s attack reminded many Yemenis of the attack carried out by AQAP on the Defense Ministry hospital in Sana’a in 2013, which left 56 people killed and 215 injured.

Local residents in Seyoun are afraid that things may become worse in their city as a result of the increasing presence of militants as well as the massive number of army troops in the area, fueling the fear that a war is looming.

According to Ahmed Saleh Shamlol, a resident of Seyoun and a journalist, Seyoun and Al-Qatan have been witnessing clashes between the army and AQAP for the past two months. Government headquarters and public schools were burglarized and destroyed, hospitals were closed down, and homes were destroyed due to the clashes, which has spread fear and panic among the locals.  

Shamlol added that “gunmen are present in large numbers and appear openly in Seyoun and Al-Qatan. They have taken advantage of the major lack of security in the governorate; they have entered it and spread in all its streets; they have polarized locals because they came in the name of religion. Some  [locals] have joined AQAP because of their poor economic condition—they joined for the money.”

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