SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen consolidated control over much of the country's largest province on Thursday, capturing a major airport, an oil terminal and the area's main military base, and striking an alliance with local tribal leaders to administer the region.
The gains highlight how al-Qaida has exploited the chaos in Yemen, where Shiite rebels are battling forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A 3-week-old Saudi-led air campaign in support of Hadi has so far failed to halt the rebels' advance.
Military officials and residents said al-Qaida fighters clashed briefly with members of one of Yemen's largest brigades outside Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, which the militants overran earlier this month. The militants then seized control of Riyan airport and moved to secure their hold on the city's main seaport, which is also an oil terminal.
The security officials, speaking from Sanaa on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press, said the leaders of the brigade in charge of protecting the entire area fled.
Nasser Baqazouz, an activist in the city, said the troops guarding the airport put up little resistance to al-Qaida fighters. "They are consolidating their hold of the city and will paralyze the whole coast of Hadramawt," he said.
Since March 26, the Saudi-led coalition has been striking the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and allied military units loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the strikes have not targeted areas with an al-Qaida presence, including Hadramawt province, where al-Qaida has long maintained a presence despite U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni counterterrorism operations.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Ahmed Asiri, said the air campaign is against the Shiite rebels' power grab — not al-Qaida.
"The goals of the (operation) are clear, which is to support the legitimacy of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, support efforts to restore peace and stability and prevent the Houthi militia from harming Yemenis and neighboring countries," Asiri told journalists in Riyadh.
Fighting al-Qaida requires different strategies than that of the current operation, Asiri said, suggesting that such a fight could come later.
"Once there is a secure and stable Yemen that is able to impose order, there will be no room for al-Qaida," he told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV station.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni affiliate is known, is widely seen as the global network's most dangerous franchise and has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on a French satirical magazine in Paris earlier this year.
The al-Qaida affiliate has strengthened its hold on Mukalla, negotiating the formation of a 51-member local council to act as nominal administrators of the provincial capital, a local politician, Ali al-Kathiri told The Associated Press.
He said local tribal leaders approved the council only to avoid bloodshed and that non-religious parties like his were kept out of the council.
"This is dangerous. We know what their orientation is," al-Kathiri said, adding that the council negotiated with local commanders of the military base in Mukalla to ensure a peaceful handover of their bases.
Baqazouz, the local activist, said control of the bases means the militants now have free rein over the long Hadrawmawt coast, which stretches along the Arabian Sea in the east.
In Mukalla, al-Qaida fighters have turned a cultural center into an Islamic religious court and set up squads to keep law and order, according to Baqazouz and al-Kathiri. The squads have arrested several local politicians loyal to Saleh, they said.
Meanwhile, Yemen's exiled vice president, Khaled Bahah, called on the Houthis and pro-Saleh military units to end their offensive on the southern port city of Aden, saying that ground fighting must halt ahead of any peace initiative.
Speaking in Riyadh, Bahah said the rebels and Saleh loyalists should adhere to the U.N. Security Council resolution passed earlier this week that calls on Yemen's rivals to end the violence and return to U.N.-led peace talks. He called on military units loyal to Saleh to return to the fold of the legitimate government.
The U.N. resolution makes no mention of an end to the airstrikes.
"We consider Aden to be the key to peace, the key to the solution," Bahah said of the port city, Yemen's second-largest, where Hadi had set up a temporary capital before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
Bahah said Hadi will return to Aden when the security and political situation improves. For now, he said a small government will operate out of Riyadh, focusing on organizing and coordinating humanitarian efforts.
The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds and seized the capital, Sanaa, in September. Iran supports the Shiite rebels, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them.
Meanwhile, Saleh troops and Houthi fighters made new gains in Taiz, north of Aden, encircling the command center of a major brigade loyal to Hadi amid heavy clashes.
Asiri, the coalition spokesman, said the air campaign has left the Houthi rebels in disarray and severed their contacts and alliance with the Saleh military units. He said fighting units on the ground are isolated from their leaders and targeting their weapons depots has limited their capabilities.
Ground fighting has been fiercest in Aden, where rebels and pro-Saleh military units are trying to take control of the city.
Humanitarian groups have struggled to meet the needs of a population that was already struggling with food security, water scarcity and fuel shortages.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that at least 364 civilians are reported to have been killed since the start of the airstrikes on March 26, including at least 84 children and 25 women. This is in addition to hundreds of fighters killed.
El Deeb reported from Cairo. Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.