SANA'A, Yemen - The United States and Yemen pledged Tuesday to step up high-level cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda as government forces punched their way into the heart of a city long held by militants in the Arab nation's lawless south.
The terror network has taken advantage of the country's political turmoil of the last year to capture several southern areas, and the Americans are eager to coordinate efforts with the Yemenis to push them back.
An al-Qaeda settled and safe in the remote interior of southern Yemen would allow its militants to plan and execute more attacks on Western interests, taking advantage of proximity to strategic shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian Seas through which much of the West's energy needs to pass.
FBI director Robert Mueller was in the Yemeni capital on Tuesday and met for 45 minutes with President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi, to discuss the campaign against al-Qaeda and show political support for the nation's new leader.
Hadi stressed to Mueller the importance of U.S. support for the campaign against al-Qaeda, presidential spokesman Yahya al-Arasi said. Mueller later discussed bolstering the Yemeni coast guard and the nations' cooperation on counterterrorism with the interior minister, Abdul-Qader Mohammed Qahtan, a government statement said.
The statement didn't elaborate, but Yemeni military and security officials familiar with the contents of Mueller's talks said Mueller told his Yemeni hosts that Washington intended to continue and maybe increase the use of drones to attack militants and to expand monitoring of Yemen's porous coastline.
The officials, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the talks, said the United States currently has three warships, while France and Russia each have one deployed off Yemen's Red Sea and Arabian Sea shores to prevent militants from targeting commercial vessels.
Meanwhile, Yemeni government forces entered the center of Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar, a southern city held by al-Qaeda since last year, after a fierce, six-hour battle that ended early Tuesday. Al-Qaeda militants seized Zinjibar last May, taking advantage of the internal political turmoil in the impoverished nation to capture several areas in the south.