Al Qaeda militants in Yemen stormed the center of the coastal city of al-Mukalla early Thursday, freeing about 300 inmates, including scores of militants, as Iranian-backed Shiite rebels fought their way into the heart of the country's second city Aden to the west, Yemeni security officials said.
They said Al Qaeda militants were also deployed across major roads leading into al-Mukalla, capital of the vast eastern province of Hadramawt, in an apparent attempt to prevent anyone from retaking it. The province is still mostly in the hands of forces loyal to embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last month.
Al Qaeda was able to capture al-Mukalla because of the turmoil gripping Yemen, where a Saudi-led air campaign is targeting Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and rival groups are fighting it out across much of the country.
The Houthis and their allies on Thursday breached the defenses of forces loyal to Hadi in the coastal city of Aden, reaching an area known as the Crater in the heart of the city. The rebels were inching closer to the presidential compound, a cluster of colonial-era villas perched atop a steep rocky hill that juts into the ocean, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Known as the Maashouqa Palace, the complex was home to Hadi until he fled Aden last month in the face of a major push south by the Houthis and their allies, forces loyal to ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis captured the capital Sanaa in September and have since seized much of northern Yemen.
Saudi-led airstrikes, now in their second week, have focused on Aden the last two days, bombing rebels and Saleh loyalists approaching the city from the east and north in the hope of keeping Aden free for a possible return of Hadi to retake the reins of power.
Hadi fled Sanaa in February and set himself and the remnants of his government up in Aden.