SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni government troops newly-trained by a Saudi-led coalition routed al-Qaida militants on Friday from a city in the country's south and arrested dozens of militants, military officials said. The battles took place as Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels organized a large rally denouncing breaches to Yemen's fragile U.N.-brokered truce.
Tens of thousands of protesters chanted against the United Nations for what they claimed was the international community turning a blind eye to continued coalition airstrikes after the April 10 start of the truce. The internationally-recognized government, backed by the Saudi coalition, meanwhile, accuses the Houthis of continuing their shelling inside residential areas in disputed cities like Taiz.
On Friday, officials said that the city of al-Houta, the capital of Lahj province, is now firmly under government control. The officials said al-Qaida militants fled the city on Friday to nearby towns and farms. Later in the day, security officials said that at least 48 suspected al-Qaida militants were arrested as security forces cordoned off the city from all directions and conducted searches. They added that a total of five soldiers were killed in the four-hour operation.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The assault came as coalition helicopters and U.S. drones launched a series of airstrikes targeting al-Qaida hideouts and strongholds across Yemen's southern region. The group has exploited the conflict between Shiite Houthi rebels and government forces to expand its foothold in Yemen.
This week, the coalition's Apache helicopters launched airstrikes in the town of Koud in Abyan province, killing at least 10 militants and wounding others. U.S. drones also struck a sprawling training camp in the southern province of Hadramawt, killing more than 50 militants last week.
The conflict in Yemen is multi-faceted.
The Saudi-led coalition has waged an extensive air campaign for a year against the Houthis and their allies, who control the capital, Sanaa, and forced the internationally recognized government to flee the country. Meanwhile government forces are also battling both al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates.
Al-Qaida in Yemen is seen by Washington as the group's most dangerous offshoot after planning several foiled attacks on U.S. soil. The group also claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on the office of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. The group has lost several top leaders in drone strikes in the past year, but has also seized control of the city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province.
The raids on al-Qaida come as Yemen's warring parties have agreed to an open-ended cease-fire that began Sunday ahead of peace talks due to begin next week in Kuwait. Both sides have reported violations of the truce, particularly in the city of Taiz, which the rebels have besieged for nearly a year, and in the outskirts of Sanaa.