Ominous new signs emerged Tuesday that Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate was capitalizing on fighting between Shiite rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition to extend its own territorial reach.
Suspected militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the organization’s Yemen franchise is known, advanced to Saudi Arabia’s doorstep by overrunning a base near the Saudi frontier in northeast Yemen, killing two, including a senior officer, the Reuters news agency reported.
Less than a week ago, Al Qaeda militants -- until recently in the gun sights of U.S. forces, who have staged a long drone-warfare campaign against them -- seized much of a southeastern seaport, Mukalla. They staged a jailbreak to free comrades, including a senior militant leader, looted the local branch of the Central Bank and set up checkpoints to enforce their authority over about half of the city.
In Tuesday’s strike, Al Qaeda attackers seized a base near Manwakh, about 270 miles northeast of Sana, the capital, Reuters said, citing militant sources in Hadramout province, the militants’ main stronghold.
The fighting enveloping much of Yemen has all but derailed the U.S. fight against Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate, considered one of the organization’s most lethal and active branches. Last month, U.S. personnel had to be withdrawn from the Anad military camp in the south of Yemen, a hub of the drone war.
With calls for a cease-fire so far failing to bear fruit, warplanes from the Saudi-led military coalition pounded Houthi rebel positions again on Tuesday, seeking to drive the Shiite Muslim insurgents from a base on the outskirts of the capital.
Strikes on Bani Matr, an outlying district of Sana, have killed and injured dozens of civilians in recent days, and more casualties were reported in Tuesday’s strikes. Military officials said the camp is now in ruins.
The fighting in Yemen, which began in earnest two weeks ago following months of unrest, has left hundreds dead and prompted warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster. Shipments of medical supplies have been blocked, some foodstuffs are running low, electricity is often cut off and gas stations are closed or besieged by long lines of motorists.
The chief Saudi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, told reporters in Riyadh on Tuesday that a ship loaded with Red Cross supplies had been given clearance to enter Yemeni waters. The coalition has blockaded Yemen’s ports, and says it wants to ensure safety before allowing aid in.
Saudi Arabia launched its air war on March 26, a day after a rebel advance on the port city of Aden prompted the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee.
The Saudis have vowed to contain the insurgents and restore Hadi to power, but the country’s former strongman leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has allied himself with the rebels, bringing many major military units to the fight with him.
Asiri, the Saudi spokesman, appealed to turncoat units to rejoin the government fold. “We ask ... those wanting to return to legitimacy and abandon the militias, to communicate their colleagues ... so they do not subject their camps and their lives to destruction,” he said.
The fight has devolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the region’s main Sunni Muslim power, and Shiite Iran, which has aided the rebels, who are mainly adherents of the Shiite offshoot Zaydi sect.
In addition to Tuesday’s strikes on Sana, the Saudi-led coalition targeted the province of Ibb, in Yemen’s inland south, officials said. There, a bombardment destroyed a strategic bridge to block Houthi supply routes, and a military encampment used by Saleh loyalists. The official news agency Saba reported that at least two civilians, both school-age youngsters, died in those attacks.
Foreigners have been fleeing Yemen as the violence mounts, and India on Tuesday announced that it had plucked to safety more than 200 people from more than two dozen countries. The crisis has produced shows of solidarity among traditional enemies, with Pakistan offering air transport home for about a dozen Indians rescued along with its own citizens.
Al-Alayaa is a special correspondent.