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Al Qaeda seizes town in southern Yemen, residents say

By Hakim Almasmari, For CNN
  • Al Qaeda fighters drove out local tribesmen, Shaqra residents tell CNN
  • The militants took control in less than an hour, one resident says
  • The government hopes to retake the town soon, a local security official says
  • Yemen
  • War and Conflict
  • Terrorism
  • Al Qaeda

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Residents of a town in southern Yemen say it has been seized by Islamists connected to al Qaeda.

People in the town of Shaqra contacted by phone said al Qaeda fighters drove out local tribesmen defending the town Wednesday. They told CNN that the militants now control the harbor at Shaqra and its fishing zone, the main source of income for the town.

Shaqra is on the Arabian Sea some 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) to the east of Yemen's main port, and occupies a strategic position on the coastal road east toward Oman.

"The attacks happened quickly," said Abdul Salam Mansoor, a resident of Shaqra. "One hour our government was in control and an hour later militants control everything."

Government officials in the capital, Sanaa, and in Abyan in the south declined to comment on the reports. But a local security official confirmed Shaqra was in the hands of the Islamists. All government buildings in the town had been taken, he said. The government was unprepared to fight, he said, and that was the reason the militants took over so quickly.

"The government is sending reinforcements to the town and hopes to retake it" soon, he said

The tribal militia defending the town had light artillery, but residents said a group of no more than 50 militants was able to seize Shaqra, along with the government artillery and equipment. Other residents said there was little fighting and the government had not used air support against the attacking Islamists.

"We are pretty sure the town was handed over to the militants like Zinjibar was in late May," Mansoor said.

Zinjibar, the provincial capital 35 kilometers away, is still largely in the hands of Islamist militia fighters calling themselves Partisans of Sharia. Yemen's opposition has accused the government of allowing towns to fall to al Qaeda in an effort to show that the turmoil in the country is being exploited by Islamist extremists.

Mansoor said he would try to leave Shaqra, fearing attacks by militants.

At the end of last month there were several days of clashes around Shaqra between tribal fighters and militants. "As soon as we controlled the city and kicked out the militants we handed the city to the Yemeni military," said Mohammed Abu Jalil, a tribal fighter in Abyan.

The southern provinces of Yemen have seen growing activity by Islamist militant groups said to be affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since unrest began across the country in February.

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