ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Al Qaeda militants who fought their way into the southern Yemeni town of Jaar on Wednesday have withdrawn and police are back in control, although the Islamist fighters remain in the nearby town of Zinjibar, residents said on Thursday.
The militants, who belong to a local affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) known as Ansar al-Sharia, took over Jaar in an early morning surprise attack, exploiting the collapse of central authority in Yemen’s civil war.
It was the second time in four years they had captured the town, in the province of Abyan about 50 km (30 miles) east of the port city of Aden. They withdrew hours later, after blowing up the house of the commander of a local tribal militia group, the residents said.
About a dozen fighters from both sides were killed in the attack, which came as a Saudi-led coalition is trying to defeat Yemen’s Shi‘ite Houthis, who captured large parts of the country from President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi over the last year. Hadi who only recently returned to Aden from exile.
In Zinjibar, about 10 km (6 miles) south of Jaar, residents said that al Qaeda fighters had also briefly deployed on the streets on Wednesday before returning to their compound. The militants have long had a presence in the town, the provincial capital of Abyan, without fully controlling it, they said.
They described the al Qaeda force as mostly local tribesmen who had helped fend off attempts by the Iran-allied Houthis to advance in the area earlier this year.
Jaar residents said on Thursday that the militants withdrew quietly from the town and regrouped at an old ammunition factory 25-30 km (15-20 miles) away.
“It seems they had withdrawn from the city at night, and all is quiet now,” resident Mohammed Suhail told Reuters by telephone. A local police source also said that police were back in control.
Parts of Abyan including Zinjibar and Jaar fell to Islamist militants in 2011 for over a year as government control waned during Arab Spring protests.
Along the coast in Aden, President Hadi, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, is trying to oversee military operations aimed at driving the Houthis out of the city of Taiz.
A Yemeni military source said Sudanese soldiers in the Saudi-Arab alliance trying to shore up Hadi, along with Yemeni fighters loyal to the president, were involved in fierce battles overnight in the town of al-Shraijah, southeast of Taiz.
The source said a Sudanese soldier died in the fighting, along with 10 Houthi fighters, while three militiamen from the pro-Hadi force were wounded.
Sudan’s army spokesman Khalifa Alshami confirmed that heavy battles were underway, but denied that any Sudanese soldiers had been killed or wounded.
Sudan deployed a battalion of soldiers in the Aden area in October, bolstering the Saudi-led forces trying to keep out the Houthis and curb the growing presence of Islamist militants.
Additional reporting by Maaz Alnugomi in Khartoum, writing by Sami Aboudi, editing by Dominic Evans