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Al-Qaeda seizes key southern town in Yemen

The town of Jaar represents a key link for al-Qaeda militants to send reinforcements through to Aden
Yemeni army troops patrol the road between the provincial capital Zinjibar and the town of Jaar in the southern restive region of Abyan on June 22, 2012

Fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized a strategic town from pro-government forces in southern Yemen on Wednesday in clashes that left at least seven people dead, according to security officials.

Jaar, located south of the Abyan governorate, was overtaken by government forces from al-Qaeda in 2012, and was one of the areas most targeted by US drones prior to that.

A military source told AFP that the town represents a key link between the main southern city of Aden and Mukalla, the al-Qaeda-held capital of south-eastern Hadramawt province.

The source said that AQAP militants will now be able to send reinforcements and supplies from their stronghold in Mukalla to Aden through Jaar.

The internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi is temporarily housed in Aden, after the Shia rebel Houthi militia took over the capital Sanaa last year.

The Houthi expansion into central and southern areas forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia before later returning to Aden last month.

Pro-government troops, referred to as the “Popular Resistance”, launched operations to retake five southern provinces from the Houthis since July, including Abyan and Aden, and have largely succeeded. However, the pro-government forces are now battling al-Qaeda, where the latter has gained ground and a visible presence in and around Aden.

Four Popular Resistance fighters, including Commander Ali al-Sayyid, were killed in the battle for Jaar, said security officials.

Three al-Qaeda fighters were killed in clashes on the outskirts of Jaar, the sources said.

As they entered the town, the militants blew up the main Popular Resistance headquarters and proceeded to hunt down pro-government fighters, the majority of whom have fled the city, witnesses said. 

A local al-Qaeda leader announced over loudspeaker from the town's Grand Mosque that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had full control of "the emirate of Jaar" and that residents were now "safe" and life could go on "normally", locals told AFP by telephone.

The armed militants soon withdrew from the streets and shops had reopened by midday, the sources said.

AQAP, already active in the south and southeast, has exploited the unrest in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been pounding rebels since March.

The militants in October occupied government offices in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in Mukalla, which it seized in April.

The United States considers AQAP to be the most dangerous affiliate of the Al-Qaeda network.