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Qaeda militants seize army HQ in Yemen port city

A general view of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla, on October 13, 2002
A general view of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla, on October 13, 2002

Al-Qaeda militants seized army headquarters in Yemeni port city Mukalla Monday, killing two soldiers and taking many more hostage, in their second major assault in 10 days, military officials said.

Militants from Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia stormed the seaside base after a suicide bomber rammed a car into the entrance, a military official said.

The militants, who were dressed in special forces uniforms and drew up in four military vehicles, then took much of the garrison hostage, the official said.

The commander of the army's second military region, General Muhsen Hasan, thought initially to have been captured, was outside the building at the time of the attack, another official said.

"He is now in another military base in Mukalla, drawing up plans with other officers to recapture the building," the official said.

Army reinforcements have been deployed to the area and have engaged the militants, said a third official.

"Army troops and security forces have cordoned off the entire area," he said.

Mukalla is capital of Yemen's southeastern province of Hadramawt and a major port city.

The three-storey headquarters is built on a cliff, on the eastern edge of Mukalla. An army base is located across the road.

"We cannot determine the number of the assailants, nor the number of personnel who are inside," said a military officer, adding that contact with some officers held inside was lost around 2:00 pm (1100 GMT).

It is the second major assault on the Yemeni army by Al-Qaeda in 10 days.

On September 20, suspected Al-Qaeda fighters killed at least 56 soldiers and police in coordinated dawn attacks in Shabwa province further west.

That was the deadliest day for the Yemeni security forces since the army recaptured a string of southern towns from the jihadists in a major offensive last year.

In June 2012, the army recaptured large swathes of the south which Al-Qaeda had held for nearly a year.

Since then, the extremist group has launched mainly hit-and-run attacks, with its members under the constant threat of monitoring and missile attack from unmanned US aircraft.

Washington regards Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the global jihadist network's most dangerous affiliate and has stepped up its drone strikes against the group in recent weeks.

Last month, security was beefed up around Western embassies in Sanaa, and some were closed following warnings by Washington of an imminent attack.

President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi said in August that a bid to attack the Balhaf gas terminal on the Gulf of Aden had been foiled after a phone call was intercepted between Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi.

Sanaa also said it had foiled an Al-Qaeda plot to storm the Canadian-run Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal and seize the port of Al-Mukalla, capital of the eastern province of Hadramawt.

AQAP has denied plotting any such attacks.

Hadi has repeatedly pledged to press the battle against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of the group's slain leader Osama bin Laden.

Last month, Hadi said a wave of drone strikes on Al-Qaeda targets in August killed 40 militants in two weeks, including some ringleaders in the Sanaa region.

Yemen is holding national reconciliation talks aimed at drafting a new constitution and preparing for elections in February 2014, as stipulated by the Gulf-brokered initiative that eased veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office in February 2012.