Aden // Yemeni government forces backed by Arab coalition armoured vehicles and air strikes on Sunday retook the south-eastern port city of Mukalla that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized a year ago.
“The forces captured the whole city and there is no presence of Al Qaeda fighters on the streets,” said Sabri Salem, a journalist based in Mukalla.
"Groups of Al Qaeda fighters fled the city in cars. I think they escaped towards mountains far from Al Mukalla after about 20 Aqap fighters were killed," Salem told The National.
Local tribes are believed to have convinced the militants to leave, he said.
“We entered the city centre and were met by no resistance from Al Qaeda militants who withdrew west” towards the vast desert in Hadramawt and Shabwa provinces, a military officer told Agence France-Presse.
Ahead of the ground assault, the Saudi-led coalition launched overnight air strikes against Aqap targets in the city, the capital of Hadramawt, in an offensive to dislodge the militants who have made it their stronghold in Yemen, earning $2 million (Dh7.35m) a day by taxing trade at the port.
"After the heavy targeting that started yesterday night, the militants started to disappear from the streets," a Yemeni military official told The National. The strikes targeted the militants in different parts of the city, including a square used by the militants for public executions, as well as the group's prisons.
Air strikes by the coalition, which includes the UAE, targeted Aqap in other areas of Hadramawt as well on Sunday, including Al Shihr and Ghail Bawazeer towns.
Coalition armoured vehicles and Yemeni soldiers had assembled at a base near Mukalla over the past week where they were trained by coalition forces in preparation for the operation to retake the city as part of a wider offensive against Aqap and ISIL extremists who have taken over areas of southern Yemen.
West of Mukalla, government forces backed by the coalition have so far liberated Al Hawta, the capital of Lahj province, and entered Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, on Saturday night.
However, the troops pulled out of Zinjibar after a car bomb killed seven government soldiers and wounded 14 on Sunday, and intelligence suggested more such attacks were imminent, according to military sources.
* With reporting from Agence France-Presse