Unconfirmed reports from the port city of Aden in Yemen indicate that foreign troops of unknown nationalities landed in the area Thursday, according to the BBC, while at the same time a Saudi soldier was reported killed in clashes along the Yemeni border, marking the monarchy’s first casualty since it launched a massive military offensive to root out Houthi rebels in the embattled country last week.
Ten more people were reported wounded in battles on the Yemen-Saudi border, according to AFP.
Houthi rebel forces penetrated deep into the former southern stronghold of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi Thursday, as al-Qaeda freed hundreds of inmates in a jailbreak elsewhere in the chaos-hit country.
The push into the heart of Aden comes despite a week of Saudi-led air strikes aimed at preventing the fall of Hadi, who fled to Riyadh last week after losing control of most of the country.
Fighters and tanks of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and allied army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh were trying to advance on the presidential palace, witnesses said.
“There are bodies and wounded in the streets and nobody dares to approach,” said Khaled al-Shaie, a resident in the central neighborhood of Crater.
The rebels seized the key district of Khor Maksar, home to several foreign consulates and UN offices after clashes with residents and local militia Wednesday that killed at least 19 people.
Two air strikes hit rebel positions overnight, while hundreds of paramilitaries arrived from the neighboring province of Abyan to support pro-Hadi fighters, an official said.
Hadi fled to Aden from the rebel-held capital in February.
But he went into hiding last week as the rebels advanced on his last remaining bastion and later resurfaced in the Saudi capital.
His aides have said he has no immediate plan to return to Aden.
In the coastal city of Mukalla farther east, al-Qaeda fighters stormed a Hadramawt provincial prison and freed more than 300 inmates, including one of their leaders, a security official said.
Khalid Batarfi had been held for more than four years, the official told AFP.
Two guards and five inmates were killed in clashes, the official said.
Batarfi is among al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) top regional commanders, known for his leading role in a 2011-2012 battle with government troops during which extremists seized large parts of the south and east.
Al-Qaeda fighters also clashed Thursday with troops guarding the local administration complex in Mukalla, a branch of the central bank and the police headquarters, the official said.
Fighting also broke out at the harbor and around a presidential palace in the city, security officials said.
The fighters met no resistance as they seized the local radio headquarters, the officials said, adding that broadcasting was interrupted.
Yemen has descended further into chaos since a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm a week ago against positions held by Shiite rebels and their allies across the deeply tribal country.
Observers have warned that Yemen-based AQAP, classified by the United States as the network’s deadliest franchise, could exploit the unrest to strengthen its presence in the country.
Before the latest chaos erupted, Yemen had been a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to carry out a longstanding drone war on its territory.
The coalition says its week-old air war is showing success, despite the rebel push into Aden.
The operation “has excellently achieved planned goals at all levels — air, ground, and sea,” coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri said.
But rights groups have expressed alarm at civilian casualties, including in an air strike on a camp for displaced people and the bombing of a dairy. Several dozen people were killed in both incidents.
“All sides in Yemen’s conflict need to do what they can to avoid harming civilians,” said Joe Stork of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In the capital Sanaa, large crowds took to the streets Wednesday chanting and waving guns in the air to protest against the air strikes.
In the southern province of Dhaleh, Houthis killed 40 rebel fighters who tried to desert after their commander urged them to lay down their arms because of the intense air strikes, military sources said.
Diplomats in New York said Gulf countries were locked in tough negotiations with Russia on a UN draft resolution to impose an arms embargo and sanctions on the rebels.
In Saudi Arabia, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef met southern border guards late Wednesday. He urged them to “strengthen security measures along the kingdom’s land and coastal borders and to deal firmly with those seeking to… undermine security,” the official SPA news agency reported.