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Saudi coalition claims recapture of Yemen port from al-Qaeda

Saudi commanders say up to 800 al-Qaeda militants killed in retaking of Mukalla, which the group had held for more a year
Saudi commanders said their forces aided the recapture of Mukalla (AFP)

Yemeni and Saudi coalition troops have recaptured a port city from al-Qaeda militants who controlled it for a year, in what a Saudi-led coalition hailed on Monday as a major victory that saw more than 800 militants killed.

The assault on the southeastern city of Mukalla, home to about 200,000 people, was part of a wider counter-offensive against the group launched by pro-government forces last month.

It comes as government and rebel delegations hold peace talks in Kuwait and after US President Barack Obama called for a negotiated settlement that would enable both sides to turn their attention on al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen is regarded by Washington as their most dangerous and the group's militants have come under repeated US air and drone strikes in and around Mukalla.

The militants used the area as a base to plan attacks overseas, including a January 2015 attack in Paris on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 11 people.

"We entered the city centre and were met by no resistance from al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west," a military officer told AFP by telephone from Mukalla.

The officer, who requested anonymity, said residents had appealed to the militants to spare the city the destruction of fighting and to withdraw.

Qaeda car bombing

In Mukalla, government troops were backed by special forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as coalition air strikes, commanders said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency. 

Loyalist forces also recaptured an area of the adjacent Arabian Sea coast, including the city of Shihr and its Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal as well as the city's Riyan airport.

"The operation resulted... in the deaths of more than 800 al-Qaeda members and some of their leaders, while some others fled," the coalition commanders said. 

The death toll could not be independently confirmed and no indication was given of any civilian casualties.

Mukalla is one of several southern cities that al-Qaeda had overrun since the Saudi-led coalition launched its military intervention in March last year. The intervention came after President Abd Rabbuh Hadi fled into exile after the Houthi movement seized much of the country.

The militants overran two other provincial capitals further west - Huta, which government forces recaptured last week, and Zinjibar which they entered late on Saturday, only to beat a tactical retreat.

An al-Qaeda car bomb killed seven soldiers and wounded 14 as they were entering the city on Sunday triggering the pullback, military sources said.

"The withdrawal was decided following information that al-Qaeda was preparing other car bomb attacks against our troops," an officer in the province told AFP.

The counter-offensive against the militants has come as a fragile 11 April ceasefire between pro-government forces and the rebels firms up.

US drone war

Washington, which has provided reconnaissance and refuelling support for the coalition air campaign, had put mounting pressure on coalition leaders to call a halt and seek a negotiated settlement.

Obama joined a Gulf summit last week and his defence secretary, Ashton Carter, also held talks with Gulf counterparts.

Obama aide Ben Rhodes urged the warring sides in Yemen to participate "constructively" in the peace talks which opened in Kuwait on Thursday, to "allow for a focus on AQAP in Yemen".

Washington has been waging a drone war against al-Qaeda in Yemen since November 2002, when it killed the suspected mastermind of an October 2000 bombing of a US destroyer that killed 17 sailors in the southern port of Aden.

Last April, a US air strike killed al-Qaeda commander Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, who claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in a video, outside the presidential palace in Mukalla where the militants had set up base.

Last month, an air strike on an AQAP training camp in Hajr, west of Mukalla, killed more than 70 militants, provincial officials said.

During its year-long rule in Mukalla, AQAP imposed its strict interpretation of Islamic law forbidding consumption of the drug qat, which is a mainstay of Yemeni social life, and demolishing the tombs of revered Sufi mystics.