Two bombs kill 37 Yemeni police in former Al-Qaeda bastion

Yemeni troops search a vehicle at a checkpoint following suicide attacks in the southeastern Yemeni port of Mukalla, on May 12, 2016.
Yemeni troops search a vehicle at a checkpoint following suicide attacks in the southeastern Yemeni port of Mukalla, on May 12, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

ADEN, YEMEN (AFP, REUTERS) - A suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and a second attack killed 37 police on Sunday (May 15) in the Yemeni port of Mukalla, where a year of Al-Qaeda rule was ended just last month, medics said.

It was the second attack in days claimed by ISIS in the city of 200,000 people which was recaptured by government forces from the rival jihadists of Al-Qaeda with US backing.

The suicide bomber killed at least 31 police recruits on the south-western outskirts of the city, which is the capital of Hadramawt province, medics said.

The bomber detonated an explosives belt as he joined a line of men at a police recruitment centre, a provincial official said.

More than sixty people were also wounded in the attack in Fuwah district, a medical source said.

Hadramawt's security chief, General Mubarak al-Oubthani, who was at the recruitment centre at the time of the attack but was not hurt, was the target of a second bombing when he headed to the centre of Mukalla afterwards, a security official said.

The bomb went off as Gen Oubthani walked out of his office, killing six of his guards but leaving him with only minor injuries, the official said.

An ISIS statement posted online claimed the suicide attack, the second but rare intervention by the jihadist group in an area known as a stronghold of rival Al-Qaeda.

"Brother Abu al-Bara al-Ansari... detonated his explosives belt at a gathering of the apostates of the security forces," it said.

On Thursday, 15 Yemeni troops were killed in jihadist attacks on army positions outside Mukalla. ISIS said one of its militants blew up a vehicle packed with explosives in an army base in Khalf district on the city's eastern outskirts.

The attacks included a suicide bombing that targeted the residence of the commander of Hadramawt's second military region, General Faraj Salmeen, but he escaped unharmed, officials said.

The general boasted on Friday that his forces had captured some 250 Al-Qaeda members since they retook Mukalla and nearby coastal towns, including its commander for the city of Shihr, some 60km to the east.

Al-Qaeda was driven out of the area last month with the backing of Emirati and Saudi special forces.

The Pentagon revealed last week that a "very small number" of US military personnel had also been deployed around Mukalla in support of the operation.

The US Navy has several ships nearby, including an amphibious assault vessel, USS Boxer, and two destroyers.

The offensive against Al-Qaeda comes amid a truce and peace talks between the government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels it has been fighting with support from a Saudi-led coalition since March last year.

Jihadists of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS took advantage of that conflict to expand their presence in Hadramawt and other areas of the south, including the second city of Aden where the government has its base.

ISIS has claimed several attacks on government and coalition targets in Aden in recent months.

The growing Islamist militant threat has led the Houthis and the Yemeni government to embark on peace talks now under way in Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries intervened in the war in March 2015 in support of the government, which had been swept into exile by the Houthis.

But Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS view the Arab coalition as a pawn of the West and see the Shi'ite Muslim Houthis as apostates deserving death.

Washington regards Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch as its most dangerous and has stepped up a longstanding drone war against it in recent weeks.

The jihadists retain a strong presence and still control several towns in the interior valley of Wadi Hadramawt.