Islamist militants have taken control of the southern Yemeni coastal town of Shaqra, the third town to fall into their hands, tribal sources and residents said on Wednesday.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has lost control of some areas in the south after months of political turmoil and mass protests demanding an end to his three-decade-old rule.
Islamist militants, some possibly from al Qaeda, may be exploiting a security vacuum as President Saleh and his allies fight to stay in power – or they may be pawns in that struggle.
They have already seized the town of Jaar in Abyan province in March and Zinjibar, the provincial capital, in May.
The tribal sources said government forces had let the militants seize Shaqra with little resistance. The militants, who the government says have ties to al Qaeda, entered the town in seven cars from another town already under their control.
The militants set up checkpoints, inspecting pedestrians and vehicles, residents said. They also took control of Shaqra’s police station and a complex of government offices.
Opposition leaders said the Islamist takeover of Shaqra, one of Yemen’s main fishing centers, was a government response to their setting up of a rebel transitional council on Wednesday.
Mohammed Basindwa, an opposition coalition leader, said the council aimed to "unite all the forces of the revolution and coordinate efforts to confront the totalitarian regime."
Late on Tuesday, tribesmen working with President Saleh’s army arrested 10 suspected Islamist militants armed with machineguns and grenades at a checkpoint near Shaqra as they headed toward the southern port city of Aden on the main coastal road.
The men were handed over to the army, which transferred them to Aden by the safer sea route, local and tribal sources said.
President Saleh, in power since 1978, said on Tuesday he would soon return home from Saudi Arabia where he is recovering from a June assassination attempt in which he was wounded and burned.
In his second televised speech from Riyadh since he left Yemen, President Saleh looked in markedly better health as he attacked opposition parties as opportunists who had hijacked the youth protests and instigated violence.
His return would anger demonstrators who had hoped his sojourn in Riyadh would become permanent and also dismay the United States, which has urged its former ally to stay away.
Popular protests against President Saleh snowballed after uprisings ousted veteran presidents in Tunisia and Egypt this year, but the Yemeni leader has clung on, defying international pressure and three times backing out of a Gulf-brokered transition deal.
Protesters and opposition parties suspect President Saleh has deliberately loosened security to let militants act more freely, in an attempt to illustrate the dangers of Yemen without him.
Riyadh and Washington, both targets of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have for years worked with Saleh to combat Yemen-based group, while sometimes questioning his commitment to crush the militants, with whom he has done deals in the past.
In other violence on Wednesday, two civilians were killed in Sabr city in the southern province of Lahj during a protest against power shortages.