AL MUKALLA, Yemen: A picture taken during a trip in Yemen organized by the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC) shows Yemeni soldiers loyal to the Saudi and UAE-backed government attending a graduation of new police cadets in the southeastern port city of Mukalla, in the first such ceremony after the city was retaken from Al-Qaeda jihadists. – AFP

MUKALLA: The United Arab Emirates, a key player in Yemen’s war, says it is determined to wipe out Al-Qaeda in the country and denies making deals with the jihadists. The UAE entered Yemen’s complex war in 2015 alongside regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, after Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa and swathes of the country from the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. But that summer, as Emirati-backed government forces retook five southern provinces of Yemen, they found themselves facing another powerful enemy: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The group, seen by the US State Department as the most dangerous branch of the global Al-Qaeda franchise, had taken advantage of the chaos gripping Yemen to carve out its own territory. In April 2015, the group seized Mukalla, capital of the vast Hadramaut province, which it controlled for a year until being ousted in an Emirati-led operation. Emirati forces have established a major military presence across the country’s south and commanders say they are determined to wipe out AQAP. “Irrespective of what happens in the wider Yemen conflict, the UAE will continue until AQAP is broken as a regional and global threat,” a senior Emirati military official said during a recent press tour in the country’s south.

‘Nothing to negotiate’

More than two years since the jihadists were ousted from the city, Hadramaut governor General Faraj Salmin Al-Bahsani, described the operation. “We set up a local force of soldiers from the region, with Emirati help,” said Bahsani, who is also commander of government forces across a chunk of southern Yemen. “Coalition air forces paralyzed Al-Qaeda forces before they were ousted from the region,” he said, sitting in his office in the provincial government headquarters, its wall adorned with a picture of Hadi.

Experts said the jihadists, who had imposed a reign of terror on the city, opted to cut their losses by withdrawing without a fight to remote mountain areas. But a press report published earlier this month detailed secret deals allegedly made between AQAP and the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Payments were reportedly made to some jihadists to convince them to retreat, while others were allowed to leave with their weapons. The claims were dismissed as “false accusations” by Brigadier General Musallam Al-Rashedi, from the Emirati Armed Forces, who said he was angered by the report. “There is nothing to negotiate with these guys,” he told journalists Monday in Dubai.

Dependant on UAE

In Mukalla, a semblance of normality has returned. Its port, a key trading point serving the entire province, is a hub of activity. Cargo ships come and go, directed into the dock by a tugboat provided by the UAE. The city is heavily dependent on its Emirati backers. The UAE has pumped some $3.8 billion (3.3 billion euros) of aid into the country since 2015 and provides much of the support that keeps hospitals, schools, courts and the port running, according to its governor.

Abu Dhabi’s police force has even sent 170 cars and 500 brand new motorcycles to the city, an Emirati general said. The Emirates have also trained and equipped some 60,000 Yemeni fighters, 30,000 of whom were directly involved in the fight against Al-Qaeda, according to an Emirati military official. He said Al-Qaeda’s activities have dramatically decreased. The group launched just five attacks in southern Yemen in the first half of 2018, as compared to 77 over the same period of 2016.

He added that until 2016, the jihadists had a major presence in cities and towns which are home to some 850,000 people, giving the group with a major source of funding and new recruits. That is no longer the case. Emirati operations and a long-running American drone campaign against the group have hit its capabilities hard. Some 1,000 AQAP fighters have been killed in Yemen since 2015, including 13 of the group’s top 18 leaders, the official said. A further 1,500 have been captured. General Rashedi said that since the start of 2016, the jihadists have lost “half the territory” they controlled in southern Yemen. “Their capacity to carry out terrorism globally has been seriously hampered,” he said.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015. In July this year, Amnesty said human rights violations in a string of UAE-run Yemeni prisons could amount to war crimes, a report rejected by Abu Dhabi. Despite Emirati successes, Bahsani admits that AQAP is still active in Hadramaut, alongside the Islamic State group which has recently established a presence in southern Yemen. He blamed both groups for a string of killings targeting security officials.

‘Ugly’ side of war

Meanwhile, an Emirati minister, whose country belongs to the Saudi-led coalition battling rebels in Yemen, on Monday bemoaned the “ugly” side of war following the killing of dozens of Yemeni children in an air strike. “This war has been and remains an ugly war,” Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) minister of state for foreign affairs, told a news conference in Dubai. A coalition strike last Thursday hit a bus in Houthi rebel-held northern Yemen, killing at least 29 children, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Houthi officials gave a death toll of 51, including 40 children, and labeled the raid a “crime by America and its allies against the children of Yemen”. The coalition announced afterwards that it had ordered an investigation into the strike, which it initially said had targeted Houthi rebel combatants. “In this war we have seen civilians shot at, bombed, killed and, unfortunately, this is really part of any confrontation,” Gargash said, adding that both sides in the conflict had been to blame. “War is not something that can be actually a clean operation,” said the UAE minister.- Agencies