Qaeda seizes strategic town in southern Yemen
ADEN (Yemen) - Al-Qaeda fighters seized a strategic town from pro-government forces in southern Yemen on Wednesday after clashes that left at least seven people dead, security officials said.
The jihadists took control of Jaar in southern Abyan province, which is a key link between main southern city Aden and Mukalla, the Qaeda-held capital of southeastern Hadramawt province, a military source said.
The source said the takeover of Jaar would "secure the link between Mukalla and Aden," which houses the internationally-recognised government's temporary headquarters.
The militants can now send reinforcements from their stronghold in Mukalla to Aden through Jaar, according to the source.
Iran-backed rebels have been battling pro-government forces in Yemen for months, and the loyalists in July launched operations to retake five southern provinces, including Abyan and Aden, from the insurgents.
But Islamist militants, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, appear to have gained ground in and around Aden, where jihadists are now visibly present.
The battle for Jaar killed four pro-government "Popular Resistance" fighters, including a commander, security officials said.
The so-called Popular Resistance, which has been battling the Shiite Huthi rebels and their allies, includes Sunni Islamists, tribesmen, loyalist soldiers and southern separatists.
Three Al-Qaeda fighters were killed in clashes on the outskirts of Jaar, the sources said.
As they entered the town, the jihadists blew up the main Popular Resistance headquarters and were hunting down pro-government fighters, the majority of which have fled the city, witnesses said.
A local Al-Qaeda leader announced over loudspeaker from the town's Grand Mosque that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had full control of "the emirate of Jaar" and that residents were now "safe" and life could go on "normally", locals said by telephone.
The armed jihadists soon withdrew from the streets and shops had reopened by midday, the sources said.
AQAP, already active in the south and southeast, has exploited the unrest in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been pounding rebels since March.
The militants in October occupied government offices in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in Mukalla, which it seized in April.
Last month, radical Islamist gunmen entered a faculty at Aden university, forcing students to leave the campus, and locked down the faculty's main gate, according to witnesses.
They said the gunmen closed the faculty after they had threatened to use force against students if they did not observe segregation of the sexes on campus.
The rebels last year seized the capital Sanaa, and their expansion into central and southern areas forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia before later returning to Aden.
The United States considers AQAP to be the most dangerous affiliate of the Al-Qaeda jihadist network.
It seized Zinjibar and other parts of Abyan in 2011, where members remained before being defeated by local army-backed militias a year later.