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EXCLUSIVE: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula massacres 60 Yemeni soldiers

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Feb. 27, 2012: Soldiers line up during a funeral procession for Republican Guards killed in a suicide car bomb attack in southern Yemen. (Reuters)

A Yemeni government spokesman tells Fox News that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is responsible for the deaths of at least 60 Yemeni soldiers in the southern province of Abyan after a massacre Sunday. 

The attack at a forward operating base or FOB, about 10 miles from the strategic city of Zinjibar, an area largely controlled by the network's affiliate, included suicide bombers and VBIEDS (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices.)

The assault began from the east, and like a one-two punch, a second assault was launched form the north with AQAP operatives taking control of the Yemeni military's artillery and rockets, according to the Yemeni government spokesman

"This is an open war. It is a major blow to the military. AQAP are very strong. We have a serious problem now," he said.

In addition to the dead, Fox News was told that dozens were injured and some survivors were "taken prisoner or kidnapped." The assault was described as "ruthless and barbaric" according to the Yemeni government spokesman who was briefed on the massacre, adding "They slit throats. It was very personal -- the murders. It was meant to send a message."

Through its media arm, known as the al-Medad network, AQAP is reportedly distributing threatening newsletters and videotaped executions to intimidate the local population as AQAP attempts to build a base of operations in the south. At least three brigades of the Yemeni military were involved Sunday. 

They were identified to Fox as the 39th brigade, 115th and 119th. The attack was described as significant because the new Yemeni president's commander in the south had just taken over his responsibilities.

According to the Yemeni government spokesman, the Al Qaeda affiliate now has firm control over at least four major centers in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, adding that this weekend's attack could not be seen in isolation. 

The spokesman pointed to a series of suicide attacks including one on the Presidential Palace which killed 26 on the day the nation's new leader, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, was sworn into power in late February. 

It is Yemen's first new president in 28 years. And this weekend, a suicide bomber's device blew up prematurely north of the Capital Sana'a as its homeland security forces warned of at least three possible suicide car attacks.

What's striking is that the Yemeni government spokesman claimed that many of the recent dead were foreign fighters who have traveled to the area. US officials told Fox last fall that since Usama bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in Pakistan, in May 2011, foreign fighters or jihadis who would have normally traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan have "redirected" to Yemen and Somalia.

"We have found bodies of Saudis, Egyptians, Algerians, Pakistanis, Chechens and Libyans," the Yemeni government spokesman said.

Significantly, the spokesman said this weekend's attack was a "game changer," claiming the "US had recently stepped aside" in the southern province of Abyan because the situation was so chaotic it was not clear who were militants and who were deemed to be friendly forces.

U.S. counterterrorism operations in the south, including the drone campaign, have included the CIA-led operation that killed one of the leaders of AQAP, the American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011, along with a second American, Samir Khan of North Carolina, who was characterized as "collateral damage."

Perhaps most alarming, the spokesman said, was evidence provided to the Yemeni government by US officials that Iran is providing "weapons and money" to the Houthis in northern Yemen.

The group, which practices Shia islam, has been engaged in a rebellion against the government in the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Asked why the Iranians would choose to support the Houthi rebellion, the Yemeni government spokesman said he believed it was an effort "to start as many bush fires as possible" with the goal of distracting the US and other regional allies as a confrontation with Tehran appears to be looming.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.