Al-Qaeda-linked fighters seized a large Yemeni army base during a dawn attack Thursday, prompting airstrikes from government forces just hours later. The raid comes as the United Nations warned that the country was on the brink of civil war.
Ansar al-Sharia, an umbrella group affiliated with the Al-Qaeda network, captured the compound in the southern province of Shabwa after several hours of heavy clashes, residents and local news sites said.
The fighters claimed via Twitter that they had set off a suicide bomb at the gates and “imprisoned most of the soldiers inside.” The base housed a brigade of up to 2,000 government soldiers, though the number taken hostage could not be confirmed.
A local tribal source told Al Jazeera that in seizing the base the group had acquired a total of 25 tanks, dozens of armored vehicles and trucks and some number of anti-aircraft rockets.
Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim militias have stepped up attacks since rival Houthis — pro-Iranian Shia Muslim fighters from Yemen’s north — seized the capital in September.
The Houthis have sidelined the central government, taken nominal control over the military, and clashed with Sunni tribesmen.
An official from the town of Beyhan, near the seized army base, said residents feared the Houthis would now move in to confront the Ansar al-Sharia fighters.
"We are scared this [the capture of the army base] is going to be used as a justification for a Houthi attack and that they will take over Shabwa with the help of the army," the official said, refusing to be identified.
Yemen's government was a key ally of Washington in its war on Al-Qaeda. The United States has been carrying out drone strikes on insurgent targets for over a decade, many in the south.
But the United States, as well as Britain and France, closed their embassies in the capital Sanaa on Wednesday, citing security concerns since the Houthi takeover.
"We believe the situation is very dangerous. Yemen is on the brink of civil war," Jamal Benomar, the U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen, said in an interview with television channels Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath late on Wednesday. He accused all sides of contributing to the political and economic turmoil and called for more talks. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed that sentiment Thursday, telling the U.N. Security council that the country was “collapsing before our eyes.”
Yemen is also home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered to be the Al-Qaeda network's most dangerous branch. It has been linked to several attacks abroad, including last month’s assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Al Jazeera and Reuters