SANA'A // Islamic militants emboldened by months of turmoil in Yemen launched a surprise dawn attack yesterday on a southern city, seizing neighbourhoods for nearly 12 hours before withdrawing to farmlands on the outskirts, security officials said.
They said one soldier was killed and three were wounded in fighting between the militants and government troops in Houta, the capital of Lahj province.
The militants, believed to number between 150 and 200 and to include al Qa'eda members, controlled several neighbourhoods in the southern part of Houta before they pulled out, the officials said.
There was no explanation immediately available for their pullback, but residents reached in the city suggested that the attack could have been meant as a show of force.
The attack came a day after a US official said Washington was worried that the ongoing unrest in Yemen could fuel connections between al Qa'eda-linked militants in the Arab nation and al Shabab insurgents in Somalia. Witnesses in Houta said some of yesterday's attackers had Somali features and did not speak Arabic. Lahj is home to a refugee camp housing several thousand Somalis who escaped the violence in their country across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa.
Daniel Benjamin, the US State Department's counterterrorism co-ordinator, also said insurgents in Yemen were now operating more in the open and have been able to acquire and hold more territory.
The Yemeni security officials also said that bands of militants drove through some neighbourhoods in the southern port city of Aden early yesterday, opening fire on security forces. They had no more details. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Islamic militants, taking advantage of more than four months of political upheaval in Yemen, attacked and seized two other southern cities in Abyan province in late May.
In a statement yesterday, an al Qa'eda-linked group thought to have been be involved in the capture of the Abyan cities listed 12 air force and army officers it intended to kill.
Last week, warplanes bombed militants' positions in and near the Abyan towns of Zinjibar and Jaar, and an army expeditionary force has been battling the militants on the outskirts of the two towns.
Massive anti-regime protests have swept much of the country since February, and rival forces are squaring up opposite each other in the capital Sana'a after days of fierce street fighting earlier this month.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's president of nearly 33 years, is in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for treatment from wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Sana'a.
Saudi media yesterday quoted Mr Saleh, who is in his late 60s, as saying he was in "good health and steadily improving" in a telephone conversation with King Abdullah on Tuesday night.
The Yemeni government spokesman Abdu al Janadi said yesterday that investigators had determined that a "military" group was behind the June 3 attack. He did not elaborate, but he appeared to mean army units that mutinied in March against Mr Saleh to join protesters demanding the president's immediate departure.
The capture of Zinjibar and Jaar in Abyan and yesterday's attacks in Houta and Aden suggest a further weakening of the central government's authority that, if left unchecked, could cause the nation to unravel or fall deeper into chaos.