SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's al-Qaida affiliate detained three journalists and an NGO worker who took part in a rare protest against the militants' rule over the eastern city of Mukalla, security officials said Tuesday.
The four were among more than 500 protesters who took to the streets of the coastal city, which was seized by al-Qaida earlier this year, the officials said. The demonstration was organized by activists on Twitter and Facebook to protest the extremists' treatment of residents.
In the past five months, al-Qaida has publicly killed 10 people in Mukalla, including on charges of "witchcraft," residents told The Associated Press. They have also flogged at least five people for drinking alcohol and swearing, and forced residents to close shops to attend prayers, Mukalla-based activist Nasser Mahfouz said.
"Their so-called courts hand out their rulings in less than hour," he said. "We live in fear."
Witnesses say the militants have enforced gender segregation in public areas, banned music at wedding parties and forbidden non-al-Qaida clerics from preaching in mosques. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known, has long been seen by Washington as the most potent affiliate of the global network and has been linked to a number of attempted attacks on the U.S. homeland. The group has exploited the chaos of Yemen's civil war to seize territory.
Al-Qaida militants seized the main security directorate in the town of Dar Saad, near the port city of Aden, on Tuesday, security officials said.
"There were no forces protecting the building. They just walked in," one security official said.
Yemen has been at war for over a year, with Shiite rebels known as Houthis and allied army units battling forces loyal to the internationally recognized government as well as southern separatists and other militants. A Saudi-led coalition has been striking the rebels since March.
Also Tuesday, Saudi airstrikes killed eight rebel fighters in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, part of a renewed attempt to cut rebel supply lines to Taiz, the country's third largest city, security officials said. The officials remain neutral in the conflict, which has splintered Yemen's armed forces.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.
Taiz is in government hands, but is besieged by the rebels. Securing Taiz would allow pro-government forces to push north toward the rebel-held capital, Sanaa.
The U.N. says at least 2,355 civilians have been killed in Yemen since March.