A Yemeni fighter loyal to the country's exiled president salutes at a checkpoint in the southwestern city of Taez
Aden (AFP) - Yemeni troops backed by a Saudi-led coalition Wednesday repelled an assault on a base where the army said 16 died, as Al-Qaeda claimed to have blasted its way into the facility.
Between 15 and 20 militants seized the headquarters building at Aden airport in the early hours, and the fate of the officers who had been inside remained unclear several hours later.
The jihadists penetrated the base after detonating two car bombs, the military said, in the latest attack on security forces to hit the southern port city where Yemen's government took refuge after Shiite rebels seized the capital.
Dressed in military uniforms, the assailants set off one car bomb at the base's entrance then rammed through a second and detonated it inside, killing at least 10 soldiers, a military source said.
"Troops and special forces have regained control of the base after pushing back the jihadists, several of whom were killed in the fighting," base commander General Nasser Sarie told AFP.
A security source said six jihadists were killed but others escaped.
Al-Qaeda claimed the attack, saying dozens of soldiers were killed or wounded, in a message posted on its Telegram channel, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
"Dozens killed and wounded among officers and soldiers of (President Abedrabbo Mansour) Hadi is the initial toll following the detonation of an explosives-laden vehicle followed by ... storming the Solban camp in the city of Aden," said Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP, quoted by the US-based monitoring group, said the operation was in retaliation for "crimes of bombing in Lahj and Abyan" provinces of southern Yemen.
The military said the recapture of the headquarters building came after troops exchanged rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire with the militants throughout the morning.
Apache attack helicopters of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in support of the government in March last year were in the skies above the base, witnesses said.
The base commander said coalition forces had assisted in the recapture of the headquarters building.
- Repeated jihadist attacks -
The attack came as Muslims celebrated the feast of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher, who was in Aden at the time of the attack, said he would "not allow saboteurs to harm the security of residents and block the policies of the government."
But the security forces are still struggling to secure Aden more than a year after it was taken back from Shiite Huthi rebels who have seized control of large parts of the country.
They have come under repeated attack from both the Islamic State (IS) group and its jihadist rivals in Al-Qaeda.
Both groups have exploited the power vacuum created by the conflict between the government and the rebels to expand their presence in the south and southeast.
Last month, CIA director John Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that AQAP had several thousand "adherents and fighters" in Yemen while there are also "several hundred" fighters loyal to IS.
In May, twin suicide bombings in Aden claimed by IS killed at least 41 people.
A spate of shootings in April and May claimed the lives of the city's traffic police chief and the governor of its main prison, while the chief of police escaped two assassination attempts in the space of a week.
Washington considers the Yemen-based AQAP to be the network's deadliest franchise and has vowed no let-up in its longstanding air war against the jihadists.
A US drone attack killed three suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Shabwa province east of Aden on Monday, a security official said.
On Friday, a similar drone attack in Shabwa killed four suspected jihadists.
In March this year, the Saudi-led coalition too turned its sights on the jihadists after a year of focusing its firepower on the Huthis and their allies.
Emirati and Saudi special forces helped government forces to recapture the southeastern city of Mukalla from Al-Qaeda in April ending a year of jihadist rule.
But in Mukalla too, the government has struggled to secure the city and there have been repeated deadly reprisal bombings by the jihadists.