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, Yemeni security officials said.
Abdullah al Sharafi, a defense ministry official, said about a third of those freed were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Among them was Khaled Batarfi, AQAP’s leader in the southern province of Abyan until his arrest in 2011, Sharafi told The Wall Street Journal.
“Al Qaeda needs to recruit and [there’s] no better way to recruit from prison,” Sharafi said. “A few of the escapees were senior Al Qaeda leaders, but among those who escaped were dozens of Al Qaeda fighters and loyalists.”
Officials also said militants overran key government offices, including the central bank, likely plundering its cash reserves, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Around a dozen government soldiers were reported killed in the fighting.
Officials 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 attack came as rebels fought their way into the heart of the country's second largest city, Aden, to the west, and captured the presidential palace.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.