A 3,000-strong elite force tasked with protecting civilians and maintaining security is poised to enter service in a number of Shabwa province directorates, Yemeni officials told Al-Mashareq.
Yemeni forces took control of the southern port of Balhaf and its liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility in December, and the area, which al-Qaeda had been using to smuggle weapons, has been restored to government control.
The elite force is receiving training in Hadramaut province under the supervision of the Hadramaut Elite Force, with coalition support, and will enter service within the next few weeks, said Shabwa deputy governor Nasser al-Qamishi.
"The new force consists of several security and military units and will be distributed among two-thirds of Shabwa province’s directorates," he told Al-Mashareq.
These include the Mayfaa directorate and the Azzan region, from which al-Qaeda withdrew without a fight last August, al-Qamishi said, adding that this reveals the group's current state of weakness.
"Shabwa province is almost devoid of al-Qaeda," he said, though he expressed concern that some remaining pockets of al-Qaeda elements may be in hiding amid the area's rugged, mountainous terrain.
Security plan for Shabwa
"The province’s leadership approved a security plan encompassing all directorates of Shabwa province, starting with a military force led by Sheikh Khaled al-Athmi that took charge of protecting the Balhaf port," al-Qamishi said.
This force is deployed throughout the Balhaf region, up to al-Ayn triangle and in neighbouring regions, al-Qamishi added.
The new force will be deployed to the rest of Rudum directorate, which includes Balhaf, and other directorates up to Mayfaa, which includes the Azzan region, he said.
Azzan has been under al-Qaeda control more than once, though the group has been defeated and forced to withdraw from it each time, he added.
"Shabwa province is still coveted by terrorist groups, al-Qaeda in particular, for its oil and gas resources and the fact it lies amid provinces, namely Hadramaut, Bayda, Mareb and Abyan, in which al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are active to varying degrees," al-Qamishi said.
Sign of al-Qaeda's weakness
The ease with which al-Qaeda was expelled from Azzan and subsequently the Balhaf area reveals its current state of weakness and debilitation, political affairs researcher Adnan al-Humairi told Al-Mashareq.
This is testimony to the success of the recurrent military campaigns, he said.
"Al-Qaeda’s withdrawal from the Azzan region is the clearest indicator of the group’s weakness, because Azzan was a refuge for the group’s leaders and members, to which they fled whenever they faced military campaigns by the army in other provinces neighbouring Shabwa," he said.
"The Arab coalition conducted two airstrikes against al-Qaeda’s hideouts in Azzan that caused its elements to pack up and leave the area," al-Humairi said, adding that airstrikes successfully targeted al-Qaeda leaders in a number of other southern provinces.
Al-Qaeda was driven from the Hadramaut provincial capital of al-Mukalla and neighbouring areas in April, and from Abyan province in July, he added.
These successes are indicators "of the successive defeats the group has suffered and the large number of leaders it has lost that forced it to withdraw from Azzan without a military land battle", he said.
Stability returns to area
Since al-Qaeda was driven from Azzan in August, "the directorate is enjoying a semblance of stability ", Mayfaa local council secretary-general Yaslam Bajnoub told Al-Mashareq.
This is despite the absence of security forces, who are needed to maintain security and resolve disputes that arise between residents, he said.
Joint co-ordination has been established among the residents to maintain security until the arrival of reinforcements in the coming days, as previously promised by the provincial governor, Bajnoub said.
Political analyst Nayef Haidan warned that if the town remains without a security force or military reinforcements it will be "vulnerable to the ambitions of terrorist groups that from time to time try to seize control of Azzan".
Al-Qaeda "is dying", he told Al-Mashareq, otherwise it would have taken advantage of the absence of security forces in the area.
"Al-Qaeda no longer has a notable presence in Shabwa province," he said.