SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen’s president ordered the restructuring of some military units on Monday, aiming to curb the powers of a son of former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and stabilize a country where Saleh’s legacy still looms large.
The move coincided with an air strike that killed two suspected militants linked to al Qaeda, still a major threat to Yemen despite being driven out of its main southern strongholds by a U.S.-backed military offensive in June.
State-owned news agency Saba said late on Monday that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi issued decrees transferring the command of some Republican Guards’ units to a newly formed force called the Presidential Protective Forces under his authority.
Other units from the elite Republican Guards, which is led by Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ex-president’s son, were placed under different regional command.
Lawlessness in Yemen has alarmed the United States and top world oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which increasingly view the impoverished Arab state as a frontline in their war on al Qaeda and its affiliates.
The president’s decrees also incorporated some army units led by dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who broke away from Saleh’s forces after the protests began last year, into the new presidential force or under regional command.
Ahmar welcomed the decrees and called them “brave and patriotic decisions”, Saba said, adding that the moves restore unity to the armed forces and improve discipline.
Hadi, who had served as Saleh’s deputy, took power in February after standing as the only candidate in a presidential election. His election came as part of a deal brokered by Yemen’s Gulf neighbors to end the political upheaval.
The president has vowed to unify the army, which is divided between Saleh’s allies and foes. In April, he removed about 20 top commanders, including a half brother of Saleh and other relatives.
Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and the United States both backed the power transition deal, partly due to concerns over the expansion of al-Qaeda’ s regional wing in a country next to major oil shipping lanes.
Washington, which has pursued a campaign of assassination by drone and missile against alleged al Qaeda targets in Yemen, has backed a military offensive in May to recapture swaths of land seized by insurgents in the southern Abyan province last year.
The army campaign was hailed as a major victory after the area was “liberated” from Islamist fighters in June. But residents and analysts say the militants are simply lying low and waiting for a chance to regroup.
A local official in the southern province of al-Baydah said on Tuesday an air strike killed two senior al Qaeda fighters overnight.
The official said the strike targeted a vehicle used by the militants in the city of Rada’a. A tribal source told Reuters the attack was likely by a U.S. drone.
Despite losing their territorial base, militants have since shown their clout remains formidable, staging a series of bombings and assassinations and attacking a southern village to regain control of territory for the first time since they were driven out.
On Sunday, a suicide bomber struck at a wake in the southern city of Jaar, killing at least 45 people, in the deadliest attack since the army declared victory in June.
In June, the commander of military forces in southern Yemen, Major General Salem Ali Qatan, was killed by a suicide bomber in the port city of Aden.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Roger Atwood)