Yemeni government troops and allies from a Saudi-led coalition have entered a city held by al-Qaeda for a year after the group’s fighters left.
Local Yemeni officials and residents told the Reuters news agency on Sunday that some 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops advanced into Mukalla, taking control of its port and airport and setting up checkpoints throughout the southern city.
The coalition said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi news agency SPA, that “more than 800 al-Qaeda elements” had been killed and that the rest of the fighters had fled the city, the provincial capital of Hadramout.
The death toll could not be independently verified.
Iona Craig, a journalist who was in Mukalla last month and who said she regularly communicates with residents there, described the coalition’s claim as “ridiculous”.
“There weren’t even 800 fighters left there,” she told Al Jazeera by phone from the UK. “There was no fighting inside the city because al-Qaeda had already left.”
Craig said the only clashes she had heard of were on roads coming into Mukalla, and that air strikes on Saturday had mainly targeted places repeatedly bombed before.
She added that negotiations had been ongoing for the last two weeks to let fighters leave and that they had been given free passage out of the city.
The coalition’s statement said the forces of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi were backed by Saudi and Emirati special forces in the operation on Mukalla, which is home to an estimated 200,000 people.
The move appeared to be part of a wider offensive aimed at taking back parts of the country from groups such as al-Qaeda, who have exploited a 13-month war between Saudi-backed government loyalists and Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
It coincided with UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait, which were arranged after a ceasefire came into effect on April 11, and from which al-Qaeda and its allies were excluded.
“We entered the city centre and were met by no resistance from al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west” towards the vast desert in Hadramout and Shabwa provinces, a military officer told the AFP news agency by phone from the city.
The Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is regarded by the US as the network’s most dangerous branch.
Last month, Washington said it killed dozens of fighters in an air strike on a training camp in Hadramout province in what would be a major blow for the group.