Al-Qaeda militants seized full control of a town south of the Yemeni capital yesterday, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing its inmates, security officials said.
The capture of Radda in Bayda Province, about 160km south of Sana’a, underscores the growing strength of al-Qaeda in Yemen as it continues to take advantage of the weakness of a central government struggling to contain nearly a year of massive political unrest.
The officials said the militants threw a security ring around Radda, preventing residents from leaving or entering, and killed two soldiers and wounded a third in clashes with army troops.
The fighters pushed into the town from several points they had captured over the weekend, including an ancient castle that overlooks the town, a school and a mosque. They freed between 150 and 200 inmates, including an unspecified number of militants belonging to al-Qaeda. The officials said some of the freed inmates joined the militants after they were given arms.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Yesterday’s attack prompted stores and schools to close.
Bayda Province is a key transit route between the capital and Yemen’s southern provinces, where the al-Qaeda militants are most -active. Islamist militants have already seized control of a swath of territory and towns in Abyan Province in southern Yemen.
A photographer who visited Radda on Sunday said the militants were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons. He quoted residents as saying the black al-Qaeda banner has been raised atop the mosque they captured over the weekend.
The security officials estimated the number of militants who attacked the town yesterday at about 200.
Yemen’s opposition has accused embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh of trying to torpedo a power transfer deal he signed last month by allowing security to deteriorate in the south of the country as a way of arguing that he must stay in power, which he has held since 1978.
The US long considered Saleh a necessary ally in the fight against Yemen’s active al-Qaeda branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on US soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organization’s most dangerous franchises.
The US withdrew its support last summer and said he should step down.
Islamist militants began seizing territory in Abyan Province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May.