ADEN: Al Qaeda fighters captured the capital of a province in southern Yemen late on Friday, killing about 20 soldiers, before they were driven out by the army, local officials and residents said.
The fighting came hours after suicide bombers killed 142 people in the national capital Sanaa, in coordinated attacks claimed by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were forced to withdraw late on Friday night from al Houta after holding it for several hours, the officials and residents said. Two army brigades then entered the city, capital of Lahj Province.
There were no reports of any militant casualties.
Houta is only 30 km from the Indian Ocean port of Aden, where President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has temporarily based the government since he escaped from weeks of house arrest in Sanaa by Houthi militia, which controls the Yemeni capital.
Yemen has been hurtling towards civil war since last year when the Houthis advanced from their northern heartland, further undermining the country’s tenuous internal security and creating more space in which AQAP can operate. In the past two days, unidentified warplanes have bombed the palace in Aden that Hadi has been using.
Western countries and Yemen’s Gulf neighbours see AQAP as the most dangerous al Qaeda branch after its efforts to bomb international airliners and launch cross-border raids into top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. Washington has been waging a drone air war against the militants in Yemen.
‘Chaos, violence and internal fighting’
Yemen’s embattled president said yesterday’s suicide bombings were aimed at dragging the country into “chaos, violence and internal fighting”.
The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks on two mosques in the capital Sanaa and the Houthi militia’s northern stronghold of Saada.
In a letter to the families of the victims, which also included 351 wounded, he condemned the attacks as “terrorist, criminal and cowardly”.
“Such heinous attacks could only be done by the enemies of life,” who want to drag Yemen into “chaos, violence and internal fighting,” said the letter released by his office late Friday.
“Shia extremism, represented by the armed Houthi militia, and Sunni extremism, represented by al Qaeda, are two sides of the same coin, who do not wish good and stability for Yemen and its people,” Hadi wrote.
The Houthis seized Sanaa in September, and have since tightened their grip on government installations, aided by forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But in their push to widen their control zone to the south, they faced a fierce resistance by Sunni tribes allied with al Qaeda militants, who are strongly active in Yemen.
The killings were the first claimed by IS in Yemen and represent a strong show of force by the group in a country where rival al Qaeda is the most prominent jihadist organisation.
Al Qaeda, however, swiftly distanced itself from Friday’s bombings, insisting it does not target mosques.
Hadi has declared Aden the temporary capital of Yemen, given that the Houthis still control Sanaa.