The situation in Yemen is growing steadily more chaotic: a dramatic prison-break by Al Qaeda militants released hundreds of inmates (many with extremist leanings) Thursday, while the ascendant Houthi rebels pushed further south in their bid for national supremacy. Successive nights of airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition, intended to halt the Houthis’ progress, have left many dead across the country. Meanwhile, Thursday morning brought unconfirmed reports that foreign troops are marching into the country.
On Thursday morning fighters from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based Al Qaeda franchise, stormed the coastal city of al Mukalla, taking control of government buildings and releasing 270 inmates from a local prison. Those released included Khalid Batarfi, one of AQAP’s top regional commanders. Two prison guards and five inmates were killed in the incident, according to an official. Observers have warned that the AQAP — considered by the U.S. government to be one of Al Qaeda’s deadliest wings — could take advantage of Yemen’s current turbulence to expand and strengthen its hold on the country.
The al Mukalla attack comes at a time when Yemen is in the throes of a messy conflict. The rise of the Shiite Houthi militia against the western-backed government of Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi has now arguably transformed the country into a proxy battlefield for regional sectarian tensions: pitting Shiite-majority Iran (whose government is widely assumed to back the Houthis) against the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition has now staged seven nights of airstrikes against the rebels.
In September 2014, the Houthis took over the capital city of Sana’a, initially placing President Hadi under house arrest before he escaped and was able to flee to the southern city of Aden. Last week the Houthis swept southwards again, and an attack on Hadi’s temporary seat of government seemed imminent. Hadi fled once more, this time exiting the country by sea. The Houthis — who follow a Zaydi branch of Shia Islam — have previously said that their goal is to replace Hadi’s regime, which they deem corrupt.
Middle East Eye reports that the rebels finally battled their way into Aden Thursday, with the support of forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was ousted in 2011 after mass demonstrations against his rule, but his loyalists remain in the country and have opportunistically joined the Houthi cause. The rebels have reportedly seized Aden’s central Crater district, after clashes between local militia fighters and rebel troops.
Officials reported that at least 19 people were killed on Wednesday, according to Middle East Eye. A Medecins Sans Frontieres spokeswoman told BBC that the MSF hospital in Aden had been inundated with patients — some 500 injured people from all sides of the conflict — in the last two weeks. An official United Nations report released Wednesday put the toll from the week’s airstrikes at 93 dead, 364 wounded. Many Yemenis have reportedly fled the conflict in small fishing vessels across the Gulf of Aden, in the hopes of reaching Somalia and Djibouti.
As the rebels encroach on the southern city, BBC reports that foreign troops of unspecified nationality have possibly started landing in Aden. According to Middle East Eye, the as yet unconfirmed reports have named the forces as Saudi-led ground troops. On Wednesday, Saudi naval vessels attacked Houthi positions in the country’s seaports.
The Guardian reports that despite the Saudi-led defense, the rebels have taken the district of Khormaksar, an area that houses foreign consulates and UN offices, and are advancing on the presidential palace (recently vacated by Hadi).
And in the midst of this chaos, AQAP conducted its al Mukalla raid — not only freeing prisoners, but also clashing with guards outside a local administration office, a branch of the central bank and police headquarters. “Al Qaeda’s incursion into al Mukalla was the latest sign that the extremist group is exploiting Yemen’s sectarian strife,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The area was, until Thursday’s attack, one of the last large pro-Hadi bastions in the country.
A Yemeni defense ministry official, Abdullah al Sharafi, confirmed that around a third of the released prisoners were AQAP fighters. But, he pointed out, others could be converted to the cause. “Al Qaeda needs to recruit and [there’s] no better way to recruit from prison,” he said. “A few of the escapees were senior al Qaeda leaders, but among those who escaped were dozens of al Qaeda fighters and loyalists.”
Before Yemen’s latest convulsion with the emergence of the Houthis as a powerful force, the country was a key U.S. ally in the battle against Al Qaeda. The government had allowed Washington to carry out an extensive drone war on its territory, according to AFP.
The current Saudi-led strikes are supported non-militarily by the U.S., and the coalition believes their efforts are not in vain. The operation “has excellently achieved planned goals at all levels, air, ground, and sea,” spokesman Brigidier General Ahmed Assiri told AFP. Human rights groups, meanwhile, have expressed alarm at the civilian casualties resulting from the airstrikes.
Images: Getty Images (5)