April 5, 2015 / 10:57 AM / 4 years ago

Tribesmen deploy in Yemen's Mukalla, some al Qaeda remain

ADEN (Reuters) - Armed Yemeni tribesmen deployed in the streets of Mukalla on Sunday, residents said, pushing al Qaeda fighters out of much of the eastern port town three days after the militants overran it.

The tribal fighters entered Mukalla on Saturday, pledging to restore security after the militants broke into its jail on Thursday, freed a local al Qaeda leader, ransacked banks and took over local government buildings, residents said.

The turmoil in Mukalla is another sign of Yemen’s collapsed central authority as a Saudi-led air campaign seeks to push back Shi’ite Houthi forces who control the capital Sanaa and are fighting for the main southern city of Aden.

Just outside Mukalla, the tribesmen fought with troops at a checkpoint before dawn on Sunday, killing two soldiers, tribal sources said. One tribal fighter was killed, they said.

A citizen’s group in the port city calling itself the Popular Committee for Security and Defense issued a statement on Sunday calling for residents and employees to defend hospitals and public buildings, to prevent a repeat of Thursday’s looting.

One of the prisoners freed from Mukalla prison on Thursday was named by Yemeni officials as Khaled Batarfi, a prominent member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who was arrested four years ago.

The United States had carried out a covert drone war against suspected members of AQAP, the powerful regional wing of the global jihadi movement, until March when U.S. personnel were pulled out of the country as Houthi forces advanced on the base north of Aden where they were operating.

The current security vacuum may offer AQAP an opportunity to entrench in Yemen’s sprawling eastern Hadramawt province, although they appeared to withdraw from much of Mukalla without offering serious resistance.

Local officials and residents said early on Sunday al Qaeda fighters had completely pulled out of the port town. But witnesses later said militants were still present in some neighborhoods.

Elsewhere in Hadramawt, residents of al-Qatn town reported explosions and heavy gunfire as suspected al Qaeda fighters attacked an army base housing troops allied to the Houthis.

Reporting by Mohammad Mukhashaf and Mohammad Ghobari; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Clelia Oziel and Stephen Powell

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