The south central Yemeni town of Ahwar was taken over by dozens of Al Qaeda militants on Saturday, residents said, strengthening the terrorist group’s control over much of the region.
Several months ago Al Qaeda seized the major port city of Mukalla in the center of Yemen's coast and the smaller town of Zinjibar to the west, with the coastal Ahwar District - home to more than 30,000 people in Abyan province - becoming a strategic geographic link between the two towns.
"At dawn this morning the Al Qaeda gunmen clashed with the Popular Resistance forces, killing three of them," one resident said. The sheikh in charge of the area was attacked after which they took over government buildings, he added.
A security official and eyewitness said the gunmen were believed to be from Al Qaeda.
Heavy explosions were also heard on Friday by residents in Aden’s Mansoura neighbourhood. Gunmen had allegedly launched shoulder-fired rockets in a failed attempt to take over a container port.
Seeing the country's civil war as an opportunity, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its operations in the region.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attacks in Paris on the controversial far-right magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Yemen's government, based in Aden, has struggled to reverse AQAP's advance, with the group reaching areas close to the presidential palace.
However, AQAP is currently facing competition from the new Yemeni branch of the terrorist group DAESH.