SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A Saudi-led coalition trying to halt the advance of Yemen's Shiite rebels airdropped weapons to beleaguered fighters in a southern port city on Friday, while al-Qaida militants overran a key military base in eastern Yemen, further expanding their gains in this violence-wracked country.
The developments underscore the magnitude of Yemen's turmoil and the swift unraveling of the country's military and other forces still loyal to embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled Yemen to Saudi Arabia last week.
On one side, there is the ferocious fighting between Shiite rebels known as Houthis and southern militias loyal to Hadi. On the other, Yemen's al-Qaida branch has been widening its area of influence in the country and gobbling up more territory.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the branch is named, has benefited from Yemen's political crisis ever since the Houthis first surged from their northern strongholds last year to take over the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north. The rebels are backed in their push by military and police forces loyal to Hadi's predecessor, ousted autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.
On Thursday, al-Qaida militants overrun Mukalla, a major port city in southern Yemen and the provincial capital of the country's largest province, Hadramawt, seizing government buildings and freeing inmates from a prison, including a top Saudi-born leader.
The militants consolidated their hold of Mukalla on Friday, capturing its port and a major army base in the city, facing little resistance, said military officials. Soldiers fled the base without a fight as the militants advanced toward the city's airport.
Hadramawt, which had been mostly peaceful as the crisis in Sanaa and Aden was building up, has a long stretch of the border with Saudi Arabia on one side and lies on the Arabian Sea on the other, making it strategically significant. It also houses key oil companies and close to the Mukalla port are fuel tanks that feed three major provinces.
Hadramawt's governor, Adel Ba-hamed, described the fall of Mukalla as part of a "scenario aimed at dragging the province and its residents" into the chaos across Yemen.
"The changes are terrifying," said activist Mohammed al-Sharafi, adding he worries al-Qaida's presence will bring the Houthis to fight the militants, which in turn could invite Saudi-led airstrikes.
To the west of Mukalla, coalition airstrikes continued to target Shiite rebels advancing on the southern port city of Aden, Yemen's major hub and the embattled Hadi's last seat of power before he fled to Saudi Arabia.
Coalition planes airdropped weapons to fighters battling the Houthis in Aden early Friday, the first such airdrop since the strikes began nine days ago.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the coalition spokesman, told reporters in Riyadh that the fighters in Aden have managed to "change the situation on the ground." He said the coalition was giving them "logistical support."
Street battles intensified in several Aden districts Friday, including the vicinity of a major weapons depot, according to the military officials. They said that weapons were dropped above the city's port.
Local pro-Hadi fighters, who are poorly armed, have been trying to keep the Houthis from overrunning Aden and the surrounding province and have often complained of lack of weapons and leadership. Ali Hussein, one of the fighters, told The Associated Press over the phone that there is "near absence of leadership and coordination."
Overnight airstrikes focused on Aden's rebel-held airport, and at least 30 rebels and Saleh's forces were killed in the strikes, according to medical officials.
In the town of al-Mualla, also in Aden province, pro-Hadi fighters fought with the rebels on Friday, leaving at least eight dead on both sides, according to medical officials there. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
To the north of Aden, the rebels and Saleh loyalists shelled the city of Dhale and its surroundings for more than two hours on Friday, according to activist Ahmed Harmal. They area is a gateway to Aden.
Coalition planes also bombed the rebel-held municipal council building in Sanaa, killing three guards and wounding 32 civilians, the Interior Ministry said Friday.
The U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, said Thursday that the violence in Yemen has killed an estimated 519 people in the past two weeks, 90 of them children, and that tens of thousands are fleeing their homes.
According to Abdel-Nasser al-Wali, a top medical official in Aden, 150 civilians were killed in Aden alone since March 28. The official said two Red Crescent ambulance workers were also killed by the rebels, who seized their vehicles.
Late Friday, the Saudi Interior Ministry said two border guards on the kingdom's frontier with Yemen were killed in a cross-border shootout, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. It was the second reported fatal shooting along the border since the airstrikes started; a Saudi border guard was reported killed earlier this week in a similar incident.
The coalition also continued to strike an island in the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, the southern entrance to the Red Sea, officials said. Rami Tawfiq, a relief worker, said the airstrikes forced some 250 of the islanders, mostly fishermen, to flee across the sea toward Djibouti. The Houthis captured the island early Thursday.
Saudi and Egyptian warships have been deployed to Bab al-Mandab, which provides the only access to Egypt's Suez Canal from the Arabian Sea and is a vital passage for shipping between Europe and Asia.