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Originally published Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 12:04 PM

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US praises Yemen crackdown on al-Qaida

The U.S. ambassador to Yemen said Sunday that a recent military shake-up has improved the fight against al-Qaida, which has taken advantage of internal turmoil to overrun parts of the country's south.

Associated Press

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SANAA, Yemen —

The U.S. ambassador to Yemen said Sunday that a recent military shake-up has improved the fight against al-Qaida, which has taken advantage of internal turmoil to overrun parts of the country's south.

Ambassador Gerald Feierstein also told reporters in the capital, Sanaa, that Washington is concerned about Yemeni officials who resist reforms ordered by the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He replaced longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh after a year of demonstrations and unrest.

Yemen's army has stepped up the offensive against al-Qaida's dangerous Yemen branch in the south after Hadi made the announcements that replaced Saleh loyalists with new officials. In his more than 30 years in power, Saleh stacked key security and government posts with relatives and cronies. One of Hadi's main challenges is weeding them out as part of urgently needed reforms in the fight against al-Qaida.

Feierstein praised the new leadership.

"We have begun to see in the past few days ... a strategy to challenge al-Qaida in ways they have not done in the past months," he said.

Yemen has received hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance from the U.S. over the years. The U.S. has also been directly involved in the fight against al-Qaida, carrying out drone strikes in Yemen targeting militants.

Military officials said that at least four people were killed Sunday in a U.S. airstrike on a convoy of three cars believed to be carrying al-Qaida militants in the desert area of al-Sanda.

There was no immediate comment from Washington. A U.S. drone attack near al-Sanda last year killed U.S.-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

In the country's south on Sunday, the army fought al-Qaida militants for a second day in the outskirts of Zinjibar, the capital city of the southern province of Abyan. The city was overrun by al-Qaida last year. The military offensive there is the first on the city in months.

Security officials said army shelling killed five al-Qaida militants just outside another city in Abyan on Sunday, where the group has been clashing with soldiers and residents for almost two weeks. Militants want to capture the city of Lawder and the strategic road it controls, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of the capital.

In a move aimed at showing that the newly-appointed governor of Abyan, Gamal al-Aqil, is serious about fighting al-Qaida, he told The Associated Press on Sunday that he has moved his office to Lawder until Zinjibar is freed.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The sweeping purges declared by Hadi earlier this month were aimed at removing divisive figures in order to unify the military against al-Qaida-linked militants who have taken over entire cities and towns in the south.

Saleh's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, and his nephew Tariq, who headed the presidential guard, have refused to step aside.

Feierstein warned that the international community could take steps against members of the former regime if Hadi's directives are not carried out.

"We would consider any idea or step that might help address this issue, and everything is on the table," he said.

The U.N. Security Council, which is set to discuss a report from its envoy to Yemen in the coming weeks, could impose economic sanctions against Saleh, although Feierstein said talk about such a move is "premature."

Saleh was the fourth Arab leader to step aside in the wave of revolts that have swept across the Mideast over the past year. Hadi, formerly Saleh's deputy, took power in February as part of a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbors.

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