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Yemeni residents stand next to the houses destroyed during recent fighting between the army and al Qaeda-linked militants on a road leading to the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar.   - Photo by AFP.

DUBAI: Some al Qaeda-linked militants may have fled to neighbouring states, including Oman, after being driven out of their strongholds in cities in southern Yemen, Yemen’s foreign minister said on Thursday.

“What we are sure of is that we've kicked out the terrorist elements from the towns and that they're now being chased,” Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters on the sidelines of an anti-piracy conference in Dubai.

Many had fled to mountainous parts of southern Yemen, while others could have fled to neighbouring countries using land and sea routes.

“There are reports that some of the militants went to Oman, which hasn't been formally confirmed to us.”

“The security services are coordinating with neighbouring countries because the militants don't only pose danger to Yemen but also to other countries.”

Any infiltration into Oman, which sits on one side of the Strait of Hormuz, a conduit for one third of the world's seaborne oil exports, would raise fears of al Qaeda setting up a new base in a region of strategic importance.

Yemeni security sources had already suggested some al Qaeda members may have crossed into Oman, a relatively stable Arab monarchy bordering both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda-linked militants, emboldened by waning government control over the country during last year's protests that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, had seized several southern cities during the turmoil.

In May, the Yemeni army launched a large-scale US-backed offensive against al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law). The army drove out the militants from their main strongholds this month and regained control of several cities in the country’s south.

But Qirbi said Yemen’s fight against al Qaeda was far from over. “The task has not finished yet; the security forces still have to chase militants to their hideouts,” he said. “The terrorist elements are on the run, but it's hard to tell when will we uproot al Qaeda.”

'UPROOTING TERRORISM'

Qirbi said that fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), believed to be the most active branch of the global network which has plotted a number of botched attempts against US targets, needed a multifaceted approach.

“If you look at the experiences of other countries from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and the United States, uprooting terrorism and extremism is complicated...it can't be dealt with only by military means,” he said.

He said his government would need to track down the sources of funding, identify Islamic clerics who propagated extremist views and create jobs for the country’s young population.

“All these measures take time before they bear fruit,” he said.

US officials say that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who came to power in February as part of a power-transfer deal brokered by the United States and Gulf states, is more cooperative in the fight against al Qaeda than his predecessor.

Analysts have suggested that Saleh deliberately gave al Qaeda free rein in the south during protests against his 33 years in office in a cynical but failed attempt to convince Washington he should remain in power to deal with the threat.

The Yemeni foreign minister said that many of the militants fighting with Ansar al-Sharia were foreigners. Yemeni officials have repeatedly identified Somali fighters among the casualties of their offensive against militants.

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