ADEN Warplanes pounded the al Qaeda-held port city of Mukalla on Sunday and killed 30 militants, residents said, as a Gulf Arab military coalition ramped up an offensive to wrest swathes of southern Yemen from the fighters' grip.
In the past year, Al Qaeda gradually took control of an almost 600-km (370-mile) band of Arabian Sea coastline and built a rich mini-state centred in Mukalla sustained largely by customs revenue from the port.
Sunday's air strikes on al Qaeda were carried out in coordination with a ground offensive in militant-controlled territory further West, a Yemeni military official said.
The push is being led by the United Arab Emirates, which has been training and arming local recruits for months, according to southern Yemeni tribal and political sources.
"The liberation of Mukalla from the hands of the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation has begun," governor Ahmed Saeed Bin Breik said in a statement.
Local officials said dozens of armoured vehicles and hundreds of troops are gathered in Ramah, around 70 km (44 miles) north of Mukalla in preparation for a ground push.
The UAE is part of a mostly Gulf Arab coalition which intervened in Yemen's civil war in March last year to support the internationally recognised government after it was forced into exile by the armed Houthi group, an ally of Iran.
Sunday's air strikes come as Yemen's government meets with the Houthis in Kuwait to try to find a solution to the conflict.
Around 6,200 people have died in the war, which has focused mostly around the country's Houthi-controlled centre and north, while a security vacuum spread in the south.
The United States has for years used drone strikes in Yemen to target Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the global jihadist group's local wing, which has plotted to place bombs on international airliners and claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack last year.
WINNING BACK TERRITORY
Fearing more air strikes, residents reported that local families were bundling into cars and driving out of town.
On Saturday, Yemeni troops battled al Qaeda at al-Koud near Zinjibar, another southern city considered an al Qaeda stronghold, while an air strike from a drone killed two suspected al Qaeda fighters south of the city of Marib.
In a statement on its official Twitter account, AQAP said it carried out a suicide bombing attack against the government troops pushing into al-Koud.
The Houthis control the capital Sanaa in the north while the Saudi-backed Yemeni government has tried to re-establish itself in the southern port city of Aden. Only in the last month has its fledgling army begun to make gains against the militants and organise to take back lost territory.
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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