Al-Qaeda raids Yemeni jail, releasing hundreds of prisoners

Al-Qaeda raids Yemeni jail, releasing hundreds of prisoners
Hundreds of prisoners including a powerful al-Qaeda leader have been freed after militants attacked a prison in Yemen's Hadramawt province.
3 min read
02 April, 2015
Graffiti in Sanaa denouncing the abduction and murder of Yemeni troops by AQAP [Getty]
Al-Qaeda militants stormed a prison in south-eastern Yemen on Thursday, freeing several hundred inmates including one of their leaders, a security official said.

Khalid Batarfi, a senior al-Qaeda figure who had been held for more than four years, was among more than 300 prisoners who escaped from the jail in Hadramaut province, according to the official.

Two prison guards and five inmates are reported to have been killed in clashes.

Batarfi is one of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) top regional commanders, known for his leading role in a 2011-2012 battle with Yemeni government troops during which extremists seized large parts of the south and east.

Al-Qaeda militants also clashed on Thursday with troops in the provincial capital, Mukalla, who were guarding the local administration complex, a branch of the central bank and the police headquarters, the official said.

Fighting also broke out at the harbour and around a presidential palace in Mukalla, according to Yemeni security officials.

The militants reportedly met no resistance as they seized the local radio headquarters and subsequently interrupted broadcasting.

Yemen has been on a steady decline into violence for months but the conflict has escalated significantly since a Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes a week ago against positions held by Houthi rebels and their allies.

The demise of the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the consequent waning of US influence in the country has eased the pressure on AQAP.

In late March the US withdrew some 100 special forces commandos from the al-Anad airbase in Lahj province where they had been training Yemeni special forces and coordinating counter-terrorism intelligence.

While the CIA is still reported to be operating in Yemen, the loss of al-Anad airbase and the ousting of President Hadi - who was an important regional ally for the US - represents a near total implosion of Washington's policy in the country, while crippling the US drone programme and intelligence gathering operations there.

The coalition airstrikes have also destroyed the backbone of the Yemeni army, which was the only native force that had the unity, wherewithal and reach to contain AQAP.

AQAP has largely sat on the sidelines while violence has engulfed Yemen - but with the country now on the verge of civil war, the Americans out on their ear and the Yemeni military debilitated, the extremist militia has chosen to make its move.

Similar jailbreaks in Syria and Iraq provide a worrying precedent, of having giving renewed strength to extremist militias such as the Nusra Front or the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis).

In July 2013, al-Qaeda's Iraqi franchise raided the infamous Abu Ghraib prison freeing some 500 prisoners, which offered a fresh boost to the group's resurgent fortunes in Iraq and in Syria.

Amid an expanding power vacuum and intensifying violence in Yemen this most recent jail break will invigorate AQAP as it calculates how to play its next move. 

Aden's palace falls

Three hundred kilometers to the west, the remaining fighters loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi have all but lost control of Aden.

The southern port city was the last major holdout for President Hadi, but having fled to Riyadh last week he has watched from the sidelines as his authority has crumbled throughout the country.

Tanks and men from the Houthi rebels and army units loyal to President Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, captured the city's presidential palace on Thursday, having taken key districts in the city earlier in the day.

"Dozens of Houthi militia and their allies arrived in armoured troop carriers and entered Al-Maashiq presidential palace," said the senior official, who saw them enter the complex.

Heavy clashes, including tank shelling, erupted afterwards between the rebels and their opponents inside the palace compound, according to a member of the pro-Hadi militia.

At least 44 people - including 18 civilians - were reported dead on Thursday alone.

Hadi's aides have said he has no immediate plan to return from Saudi Arabia.