Yemen’s Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that struck a navy base in the southern port city of Mukalla on Thursday morning, killing at least six troops in a rare IS attack in a city once occupied by its rival militant al-Qaida branch.
Officers from a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s internationally recognized government have been seen recently at the base but it was not immediately clear if any of the coalition troops were present at the time of the attack.
The IS affiliate in Yemen, which has largely been eclipsed by the rival al-Qaeda branch, emerged during the country’s civil war, seeking to expand its footprint amid the turmoil gripping the country. Since March last year, Yemen has been immersed in a conflict pitting the country’s Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies against President Abed Rabbo Mansour’s government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
In Thursday’s attack, the bomber rammed his car into a checkpoint manned by Yemeni troops outside the navy base, sending a plume of heavy black smoke into the sky, security officials said. Ambulances were seen rushing to the site and images of the aftermath were posted on social media.
In an online statement by IS supporters on Twitter, the group identified the suicide bomber as Hamza al-Muhajer, saying he detonated his vehicle at the headquarters of “Hadi’s apostate militias” - a reference to forces loyal to Hadi’s government.
Almost at the same time, two other explosions hit the military headquarters in Mukalla, according to the officials, who said the blasts set off fierce clashes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Hours after the attack, Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Ubaid bin Daghir visited Mukalla, his first visit since the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government troops last month routed al-Qaeda fighters from the city, the provincial capital of Hadramawt. After the militants withdrew, Saudi and Emirati officers were also seen in the city.
U.S. warplanes and drones have carried several airstrikes targeting al-Qaeda training camps and vehicles in the same region over the past months.
Last week, U.S. officials said the Pentagon is providing military support, intelligence, ships and special operations forces to help in the ongoing operations against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. A senior U.S. official said that American special operations forces are advising Yemeni and Emirati forces there but that they are working at the headquarters’ level and are not near the front lines.
After its withdrawal from Mukalla, al-Qaeda said it pulled out to spare the city of destruction. The coalition claimed it killed 800 militants but al-Qaida supporters and witnesses largely denied those claims.
Throughout its year-long rule of Mukalla, al-Qaeda forged an alliance with local forces fighting the Houthis in cities like Taiz and Aden. Those local fighters are backed by the Saudi-led coalition, a reflection of the complexities of Yemen’s conflict.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s warring parties have been holding U.N.-brokered negotiations in Kuwait to resolve the conflict. A truce, which began April 10, has mostly held despite multiple breaches by both sides.
A top Yemeni army official attending the talks told The Associated Press on Thursday that no progress has been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door negotiations.