SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked militants temporarily seized parts of a provincial capital in southern Yemen on Wednesday, the latest in a series of brazen attacks by extremists taking advantage of the turmoil in the poor Arab nation.
The increasingly bold fighters are expanding their reach after wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen for Saudi Arabia and cast the country into deeper chaos. Their gains in a nearly lawless region of southern Yemen lend urgency to U.S. efforts to bolster military capabilities that can be used to strike at the terrorist network.
Yemen is at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula close to the Gulf's vast oil fields and strategic shipping lanes in the Arabian and Red seas. It is home to one of the most active al-Qaida branches, which has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009. The group also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights.
Yemen is also home to U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the United States has put on a kill-or-capture list. Washington accuses him of inspiring attacks on the U.S., including the 2009 shooting at a military base in Texas that killed 13 people.
Saleh left Yemen for treatment of wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The president, who is nearly 70, was quoted by the Saudi media Wednesday as saying he was "in good health and steadily improving."
Yemen's leader of nearly 33 years, Saleh has held onto power in the face of massive protests demanding his ouster since February. Some of his top aides, military commanders, Cabinet ministers and diplomats have defected to the protesters' side in recent months. This month, troops loyal to him fought rival tribesmen in Sanaa's streets, with both sides using rockets, mortars and artillery.
The turmoil has created a vacuum in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, threatening to cause the country to unravel or break up.
Up to 200 militants from the al-Qaida-linked group Ansar al-Sharia, or supporters of Islamic Sharia laws, launched a surprise dawn attack on Houta, capital of southern Lahj province, killing one soldier and wounding three before taking control of several neighborhoods, according to security officials.
They held them for nearly 12 hours, forcing stores to close and residents to stay home. They pulled out in late afternoon, taking new positions in farmlands just outside the city's southern outskirts.
It was not clear why they withdrew, but some residents said the incursion appeared to be a show of force by the militants, who since late May have seized and held two cities, including a provincial capital, in the neighboring province of Abyan.
The security officials also said bands of militants drove through some neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden early Wednesday, opening fire on security forces. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The gunfire in Aden prompted a warning by Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed of an "imminent danger" to the city by the militants. He also said at a meeting with the city's military and police leaders to rally together to defend the city.
Wednesday's attacks in Houta and Aden underlined Washington's worries that Yemen's ongoing unrest could fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa.
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 fled violence in their country.
Houta resident Anees Mansour painted a picture of disarray in Lahj province.
He said the attackers met with little resistance from army and security forces in the city, provincial Gov. Ahmed Al-Maguidi has not been to his office in three days, and that the province's security chief, Mohammed Aqlan, was fired earlier this week.
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said insurgents in Yemen were operating more in the open and have been able to acquire and hold more territory.
Anticipating worsening conditions in Yemen, the United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaida terrorists in case anti-American groups emerge victorious from the country's current political impasse and shut U.S. forces out, The Associated Press has learned.
The AP also learned that the White House has increased the number of CIA officers in Yemen and stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to eight months.
The AP has withheld the exact location of the base at the request of U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified.
The new base suggests a long-term U.S. commitment to fighting al-Qaida in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit, though not public, Pakistani government approval.
Underlining the growing threat from the militants in Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters have captured the Abyan towns of Zinjibar and Jaar, listed in a statement obtained Wednesday the names and ranks of 12 air force and army officers it said it intended to kill for taking part in attacks last week against its members there.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report from Washington.