AL MUKALLA (Yemen) • More than 800 Al-Qaeda militants have been killed in an offensive by Yemeni government forces and their Arab allies in the group's main stronghold in the port city of Al Mukalla.
The Saudi-led coalition said in a statement yesterday that many militants also fled the provincial capital that they had held for a year, after the offensive by supporters of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi backed by Saudi and Emirati special forces.
Sunday's air strikes killed at least two civilians, local officials said.
The operation also recaptured an oil terminal east of Al Mukalla and was part of a wider offensive aimed at securing parts of the country captured by militants who have exploited a 13-month civil war between the Gulf-backed Yemeni government loyalists and Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
It coincides with United Nations- brokered peace talks in Kuwait after a ceasefire which entered effect on April 11, but from which militant groups are excluded.
Thousands of Al-Qaeda fighters in the city, home to about 200,000 people, appeared ready for the battle. In mosques, militants asked residents for support as they confronted "the invaders", and placed fuel tankers on roads to use as booby traps.
But in the end, hardly a shot was fired. By nightfall on Sunday, the Al-Qaeda militants had withdrawn from Al Mukalla, depriving the group of the seaport that enabled it to amass a fortune - pocketing around US$2 million (S$2.7 million) a day in customs revenues.
The loss of the city was a blow to Al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch, which is widely considered to be the militant group's most dangerous worldwide affiliate, with a particular focus on blowing up commercial airliners. It claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year.
Over the past year, Al-Qaeda had used Al Mukalla as a base as the militants stormed through southern Yemen to little resistance, capitalising on the power vacuum caused by the civil war and seizing territory, weapons and money.
The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition supporting the government with air strikes rarely, if ever, attacked Al-Qaeda.
The militants' expansion became the subject of more intense focus in regional and Western capitals as Yemen's war reached a stalemate. In a major shift, the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi- led coalition, turned its attention in the last few months from fighting the Houthis to readying thousands of Yemeni tribal fighters for the battle against Al-Qaeda, said several Yemeni military leaders.
A United States air strike last month killed over 70 Al-Qaeda fighters at a training camp. Last week, Yemeni forces attacked Al-Qaeda positions in Lahj province, west of Al Mukalla, and drove the militants from provincial capital Al Houta.
The militants still control cities in Abyan and Shabwa provinces - long Al-Qaeda strongholds.
Even if the current campaign is successful, one of the primary challenges will be preventing Al-Qaeda fighters from returning, given the continuing security and political vacuum in Yemen, analysts said.
In Al Houta, for example, local fighters were left to secure the city after the better-trained Emirati- backed Yemeni soldiers returned to their bases in Aden, said Lahj province's chief of security Adel al-Halimi.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS