Saudi-led air raids drove back rebels in the last stronghold of Yemen’s absent president Friday, while Al-Qaeda militants seized a major army base in the southeast of the country.
The impoverished Arabian Peninsula state has sunk further into chaos since the coalition spearheaded by Riyadh launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 26 to try to halt the advance by Shiite Huthi rebels.
The turmoil has raised fears that Al-Qaeda will expand its foothold in the deeply tribal country, which borders oil-rich Saudi Arabia and lies near key shipping routes.
On Friday the Sunni extremists captured the regional army headquarters in Mukalla, capital of the southeastern province of Hadramawt, with no resistance, a military official said.
The militants now control nearly all of the city, where they stormed a jail and freed 300 inmates a day earlier.
UN aid chief Valerie Amos said Thursday that 519 people had been killed and nearly 1,700 wounded in two weeks of fighting, adding she was “extremely concerned” for the safety of trapped civilians.
The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the foremost Shiite and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East.
Iran has angrily rejected accusations or arming the rebels, who have allied with military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large parts of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.
After a night of intense coalition bombardment, rebel forces withdrew from President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s palace in Aden, a senior official said.
They had captured the hilltop complex a day earlier in a symbolic blow to Hadi, who has fled to Saudi Arabia.
“The Huthi militia and their allies withdrew before dawn from the Al-Maashiq palace,” said the official in Aden.
The rebel forces retreated to the nearby central district of Khor Maksar, where 12 rebels were reported dead in an overnight attack by pro-Hadi militiamen.
Calls for jihad:
The coalition air dropped rifles, ammunition and communications equipment to supporters of the president in Aden battling to prevent its fall, according to a local official.
In Mukalla, several hundred Al-Qaeda militants flying the black banner of the extremist network were seen patrolling and setting up roadblocks.
Members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) launched calls from mosques in the city for “jihad against Shiites”, according to residents.
“Yemen is gradually drifting towards a civil war of a confessional nature”, which “recalls the early days of the Syrian and Iraqi crises,” said Mathieu Guidere, professor at France’s University of Toulouse.
Before the latest chaos erupted, Yemen had been a key US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to carry out drone attacks on its territory.
The government’s collapse forced the United States to close its embassy and withdraw US special operations forces that were helping Yemeni forces battle AQAP.
As a result of the US pullout, “our capability is diminished” against AQAP, a senior military official in Washington said Thursday.
As part of its logistical support for the Saudi-led campaign, the United States will provide aerial refuelling, the official said.
The United States was also delivering intelligence from surveillance satellites and aircraft to help the Saudis monitor their border and to track Huthi rebels as they push south, the official added.
The intelligence was helping create “a battlefield picture” of where the Huthis were deployed and to enable coalition aircraft to avoid causing civilian casualties, the official said.
New clashes were reported Friday in areas near the Aden palace and the city’s international airport, which was bombarded during the night by coalition warships, according to military sources.
They said a plane parked at the airport was destroyed.