SANAA, Yemen — Al-Qaida militants overran and held a city in southern Yemen for hours Monday before an army counterattack pushed them out, officials said, as Saudi Arabia offers to host peace talks to end the country’s political chaos.
The attacks come a day after Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi managed to escape the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, which Shiite Houthi militants have controlled since September. He joined embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in the southern city of Aden, where the leader has renounced his resignation and now claims to be leader of the Arab world’s poorest country.
Military officials said that Monday’s fighting over the city of Mahfad in Yemen’s Abyan province, a former al-Qaida stronghold, lasted eight hours. Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula militants took control of the city council building and several army checkpoints before moving in on a key army base. Fighting killed four Yemeni soldiers and seven al-Qaida militants, they said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to journalists.
Yemen’s al-Qaida branch has taken advantage of a deep political crisis roiling the country to launch attacks. The Houthi offensive and its plan to seize control of southern cities with a Sunni majority are feared to turn the political conflict into a sectarian one. Al-Qaida likely would benefit from such chaos.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia agreed to host a peace talks with the Houthis requested by Hadi, according to Saudi Arabia’s official news agency. Many believe the Houthis, who are rumored to be supported by Shiite power Iran, will reject taking part in the talks.