SANAA (AFP) – Suspected al-Qaeda militants have captured a town in southwest Yemen in a deadly attack seen as a countermove to advances by Shiite rebels sweeping across the strife-hit country.
Rival groups are seeking to exploit a power vacuum in impoverished Yemen, which has been in a political deadlock since the Huthi Shiite rebels took control of the capital Sanaa last month.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based franchise, considered by the United States to be the deadliest branch of the extremist network, has vowed to fight the rebels in defence of Sunni Muslims.
Its militants stormed the town of Udain overnight, setting fire to the police headquarters and attacking the offices of the local government, a security official and local sources said Thursday.
Five policemen were reported dead.
The offensive came just hours after Shiite rebels overran the provincial capital of Ibb located 20 kilometres to the east.
Yemen, a key ally in US efforts to combat al-Qaeda, has been wracked by political turmoil and sporadic violence since an uprising toppled strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012.
The country is located next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and key shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden.
The fear is that if Yemen falls apart, al-Qaeda militants will exploit it as a haven.
Al-Qaeda is active in several Yemeni provinces, mainly in the south and southeast, where repeated government military campaigns drove the network’s militants out of key cities they once controlled.
The affiliate has often targeted Yemeni security forces in Yemen and has itself come under frequent attack by US drones.
The push into Udain appeared to be in retaliation for the Huthis’ capture of Ibb, a local official said.
Already in control of Sanaa and the strategic port city of Hudeida, the Shiite rebels on Wednesday appeared to have taken control of the Dhamar and Ibb provinces, security officials said.
Just as in Sanaa and Hudeida, the Huthis faced no opposition as they entered the centres of the two provinces and set up checkpoints, the officials said.
They have been taking advantage of the political crisis in Sanaa to seize control of significant areas, threatening the authority of the Sunni-led central government.
The Huthis have kept up their advance despite the naming of a new prime minister on Monday by President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi in a bid to resolve the stalemate.
The steady expansion of the Shiite rebels has increased the threat of an open confrontation with al-Qaeda.
Deadly fighting broke out Tuesday when the Huthis tried to expand out of the town of Rada in central Baida and clashed with al-Qaeda militants.