SANAA, Yemen – Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen consolidated control over much of the country’s largest province on Thursday, capturing a major airport, an oil terminal and the area’s main military base, and striking an alliance with local tribal leaders to administer the region.
The gains highlight how al-Qaida has exploited the chaos in Yemen, where Shiite rebels are battling forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A 3-week-old Saudi-led air campaign in support of Hadi has so far failed to halt the rebels’ advance.
Military officials and residents said al-Qaida fighters clashed briefly with members of one of Yemen’s largest brigades outside Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, which the militants overran earlier this month. The militants then seized control of Riyan airport and moved to secure their hold on the city’s main seaport, which is also an oil terminal.
The security officials, speaking from Sanaa on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press, said the leaders of the brigade in charge of protecting the entire area fled.
Nasser Baqazouz, an activist in the city, said the troops guarding the airport put up little resistance to al-Qaida fighters. “They are consolidating their hold of the city and will paralyze the whole coast of Hadramawt,” he said.
Since March 26, the Saudi-led coalition has been striking the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and allied military units loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the strikes have not targeted areas with an al-Qaida presence, including Hadramawt province, where al-Qaida has long maintained a presence despite U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni counterterrorism operations.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Ahmed Asiri, said the air campaign is against the Shiite rebels’ power grab – not al-Qaida.
“The goals of the (operation) are clear, which is to support the legitimacy of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, support efforts to restore peace and stability and prevent the Houthi militia from harming Yemenis and neighboring countries,” Asiri told journalists in Riyadh.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni affiliate is known, is widely seen as the global network’s most dangerous franchise and has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S.
The group claimed responsibility for the attack on a French satirical magazine in Paris earlier this year.
The al-Qaida affiliate has strengthened its hold on Mukalla, negotiating the formation of a 51-member local council to act as nominal administrators of the provincial capital, a local politician, Ali al-Kathiri, told the Associated Press.
He said local tribal leaders approved the council only to avoid bloodshed and that nonreligious parties like his were kept out of the council.
“This is dangerous. We know what their orientation is,” al-Kathiri said, adding that the council negotiated with local commanders of the military base in Mukalla to ensure a peaceful handover of their bases.
Baqazouz, the local activist, said control of the bases means the militants now have free rein over the long Hadrawmawt coast, which stretches along the Arabian Sea in the east.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s exiled vice president, Khaled Bahah, called on the Houthis and pro-Saleh military units to end their offensive on the southern port city of Aden, saying that ground fighting must halt ahead of any peace initiative.
“We consider Aden to be the key to peace, the key to the solution,” Bahah said of the port city, Yemen’s second-largest, where Hadi had set up a temporary capital before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
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