Houthi fighters, backed by supporters of ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, entered the provincial capital of the mainly Sunni Shabwa province in eastern Yemen on Thursday, residents said, despite intense Saudi-led air strikes against the group.
Residents said local tribal chiefs and security officials facilitated the entry of the Houthi forces to the city of Ataq, where they took control of the offices of the local government and security forces compounds.
It was the first time that the Shia Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh had entered the city, home to the Sunni Awlaki tribe.
The takeover brings the Houthis and Saleh's forces closer to the country's most prized economic asset, the Belhaf gas facility and export terminal, on the Arabian Sea about 100 miles to the southeast.
Saudi Arabia, backed by four Gulf Arab states and other regional Arab allies, has mounted two weeks of air strikes against the Iran-allied Houthis after they pushed south toward Aden, the stronghold of Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In a speech on Thursday in Tehran, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani called for an end to the air strikes in Yemen, saying countries in the region should work towards a political solution.
“A great nation like Yemen will not submit to bombing. Come, let us all think about ending war. Let us think about a ceasefire ... Let us prepare to bring Yemenis to the negotiating table,” Rouhani said.
On the diplomatic front, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, said during a visit to Pakistan that the countries should work together to end the Yemen crisis.
“We need to work together to find a political solution,” he said as he arrived on Wednesday for a two-day visit to Islamabad.
However, in an interview aired on “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday night, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, accused Iran of providing support to Houthi forces.
Kerry's comments followed confirmation by the U.S. administration that it was expediting arms shipments to Saudi Arabia and subsequent remarks by Ash Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, that the conflict had provided Al-Qaeda with “opportunity” to gain new territory in Yemen.
The Saudi-led air campaign failed to stop the Shia Houthis and troops loyal to Saleh entering central Aden. But the coalition says it has cut Houthi supply lines, destroyed weapons depots and pushed them back in some southern provinces around Aden.
Earlier on Wednesday, residents of the Siddah district in central Yemen said they woke to find Al-Qaeda flags flying over local government offices.
They said a group of Al-Qaeda fighters led by a local commander known as Ma'mour al-Hakem, took over the district at night. Residents said the Houthis, who had been in control of the town for more than two months, retreated without a fight.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, has exploited the security vacuum to entrench itself further in the country's remote eastern reaches.
Last week, AQAP captured the eastern port city of Mukalla. Residents said tribal fighters were deployed to push AQAP out, but that parts of the city were still under AQAP control.
The Houthis, who captured Sanaa in September, have said their advance beyond the Yemeni capital was aimed at fighting Al-Qaeda, which has a major presence in central and eastern Yemen.
Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck military targets and weapons stores near the capital Sanaa under Houthi control, as well as northern areas near the border with Saudi Arabia and in Yemen's south, local officials said on Thursday.
Warplanes repeatedly targeted a playground where the Houthis are gathered east of the Mansoura district of Aden, the officials added.
Saudi-led forces also dropped military supplies to tribal fighters allied to Hadi in Radfan area, south of the city of Dhalea near Aden, local officials said.
Overnight strikes also hit an army unit loyal to Saleh in Dhalea and in the southern provinces of Shabwa and Taiz, the officials said.
They also reported heavy bombardment to the north on the Yemeni-Saudi border.
Late on Wednesday warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck an army base near the Bab al-Mandeb strait which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, killing five soldiers. They also struck an island in the strait, a busy shipping channel for vessels between the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
The World Health Organization says at least 643 people have died and more than 2,200 have been injured in the Yemeni conflict since March 19. Tens of thousands of families have also been displaced and WHO has warned that the situation in the Arabian Peninsula nation is critical.
Prior to the latest round of conflagrations, Yemenis already had a life expectancy of about seven years less than the global average of 70, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Al Jazeera and wire services