Al-Qaida militants traveling in convoys flying black banners captured a major port city in southern Yemen on Thursday, seizing government buildings and freeing inmates from a prison, including a top Saudi-born leader, security officials said.
Al-Qaida militants took full advantage of the weapons air-dropped by the Saudi-led forces to equip them fight against the revolutionary Houthi fighters.
The fall of Mukalla — the capital of Yemen’s largest province, Hadramawt — highlighted how al-Qaida is expanding its foothold in Yemen, taking advantage of the turmoil as a Saudi-led coalition backing the country’s beleaguered president tries to fend off a takeover by the revolutionary Houthis.
Mukalla’s fall came as Houthis made dramatic advances in one of the main strongholds of the president’s loyalists, the southern city of Aden. The revolutionaries broke into the center of Aden and briefly captured a presidential palace in the city.
The rebels withdrew from the palace after raising the Yemeni flag, but the move showed their continued strength despite more than a week of heavy airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. If the Houthis succeed in capturing Aden, it would be a significant blow to the coalition, which has been planning to land ground troops in the city to allow the return of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last week.
At least 519 people have been killed, many of them civilians and 90 of them children, in the past two weeks of violence in Yemen, as well as 1,700 wounded, the U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said. She said tens of thousands have also fled their homes.