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 (12.5 miles) 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.
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 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, unopposed, of the Dhamar and Ibb provinces, security officials said.
They have been taking advantage of the political crisis in Sanaa to seize 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.
– Steady rebel expansion –
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.
Five rebels, six suspected Al-Qaeda militants and a civilian were killed during the fighting in Rada, a security official and tribal sources said Wednesday.
Suspected Al-Qaeda militants executed a local Huthi chief, Khalil al-Riyami, who was apparently captured during clashes, local sources said.
Al-Qaeda gunmen were also spotted in Ibb and Taez, the largest city in Yemen that lies further south.
But a deal has been reached between the local government of Taez and representatives of the rebels who agreed not to enter the city, helping to avert potential confrontations, a local official said.
The Huthis, who have long complained of marginalisation by Sanaa, were so far concentrated in the mostly Shiite northern highlands in otherwise Sunni-majority Yemen.
Huthi militiamen stormed into Sanaa on September 21, easily seizing key government installations, and they now man checkpoints and run patrols across the capital in almost total absence of the security forces.
Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a powerful suicide bombing that killed 47 people at a gathering of Huthi supporters in Sanaa earlier this month.
An unknown assailant on a motorbike late on Wednesday hurled a grenade at a Huthi post in the capital, killing two people and wounding two others, rebels said.
– November 30 ‘deadline’ –
Attempting to seize the opportunity of weakening state authority, thousands of supporters of the separatist Southern Movement continued a sit-in they started Tuesday in the main city of the south, Aden, demanding renewed independence.
“We have set a deadline of November 30 to be handed control of military and security institutions in the south,” said Southern Movement activist Adib al-Issa.
If this does not happened, he warned, “they will be seized by force”.
The south was independent between the end of British colonial rule in 1967 and its union with the north in 1990.
A secession attempt four years later sparked a brief but bloody civil war that ended with northern forces occupying the region.