SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Islamic militants emboldened by months of turmoil in Yemen launched a surprise dawn attack Wednesday on a southern city, seizing entire neighborhoods 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, provincial capital of Lahj province.
The militants, believed to number between 150 and 200 and to include al-Qaida members, controlled several neighborhoods 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 senior U.S. official said Washington was worried that the ongoing unrest in Yemen could fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants in the Arab nation and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia. Witnesses in Houta said some of Wednesday'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 State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, 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 neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden early Wednesday, opening fire on security forces. They had no more details. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.
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 obtained Wednesday, an al-Qaida-linked group thought to have been be involved the capture of the Abyan cities listed 12 air force and army officers it intended to kill them.
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 Sanaa after days of fierce street fighting earlier this month.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's president of nearly 33 years, is in neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment from wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Sanaa.
Saudi media on Wednesday quoted Saleh, who is in his late 60s, as saying he was in "good health and steadily improving" in a telephone conversation with King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, Tuesday night.
Government spokesman Abdu al-Janadi said Wednesday that investigators have 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 Saleh to join protesters demanding the president's immediate ouster.
The capture of Zinjibar and Jaar in Abyan and Wednesday's attacks in Houta and Aden suggest a further weakening of the central government's authority that, if left unchecked, could cause the impoverished nation in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula to unravel or fall deeper into chaos.
Residents in Shabwa, one of the al-Qaida strongholds in southern Yemen, have been reporting intensifying overflights by U.S. drones, suggesting the Americans were keeping close watch on the situation.
The CIA is trying to speed up construction of a Persian Gulf base for its drones, but the process is being held up by logistic delays, U.S. officials said in Washington. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters, said the base is at least eight months away from completion.
The Associated Press has withheld the exact location at the request of U.S. officials.