By Mohammed Mukhashaf
ADEN, April 25 – Yemeni government forces and their Emirati allies took control of the country’s largest oil export terminal from Al Qaeda on Monday, Yemeni security officials said, a day after sweeping the militant group from its nearby stronghold.
The lightning advance is a major shift in strategy for the Saudi-led coalition, which for over a year has focused its firepower on the Iran-allied Houthi group that seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa further West and drove the government into exile.
A fragile ceasefire between the two camps has been in operation since April 10.
In 48 hours, the coalition deprived the Islamist militants of a lucrative mini-state they had built up over the course of a year, based around the port city of Mukalla.
Around 80 percent of Yemen’s modest oil reserves were exported in peacetime from the Ash Shihr terminal, which has been closed since the war began and al Qaeda seized the area.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) tried last year to export the 2 million barrels of crude stored there with the approval of Yemen’s government, which refused.
A statement by the mostly Gulf Arab coalition said on Monday that its offensive had killed 800 Al Qaeda members and several leaders, though Mukalla residents said the number appeared unlikely and the group withdrew largely without a fight.
“It’s highly exaggerated. There was only very little combat,” said resident Mubarak al-Hameli by telephone.
Residents said local clerics and tribesmen had earlier been in talks with the group to exit quietly and that fighters withdrew westward to the neighboring province of Shabwa.
Local Yemeni officials said on Sunday that some 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops advanced into Mukalla, taking control of its maritime port and airport and setting up checkpoints throughout the southern city.
AQAP, which has masterminded several foiled bomb plots on Western-bound airliners and claimed credit for the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, was pocketing around $2 million a day in customs revenues from the port.
The coalition offensive is now seeking to advance on AQAP-held towns along an almost 600-km (370-mile) stretch of Arabian Sea coastline between Mukalla and the government’s base in Aden, where militants appeared to be mounting fiercer resistance.
Local security officials said a senior Yemeni officer escaped an AQAP car bombing that killed four of his bodyguards outside the city of al-Koud in Abyan province on Sunday night.
Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 6,200 people, displaced more than 2.5 million people and caused a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world’s poorest countries.
The two-week ceasefire, which has reduced fighting along most frontlines between coalition and Houthi fighters, has prepared the ground for peace talks now under way in Kuwait.