Al-Qaeda militants swept into the Yemeni town of Rada overnight and overran it within hours, marking a significant advance by the extremists towards the capital, officials said on Monday.
The takeover of Rada, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southeast of Sanaa, was the latest in a series of towns and cities -- until now in the south and east -- to fall as Al-Qaeda takes advantage of a central government weakened by months of protests.
Several sources in the town said more than 1,000 Al-Qaeda gunmen invaded Rada, which is within striking distance of a strategic highway connecting Sanaa with the south and southwest.
"Al-Qaeda has taken over the town and is now the de facto power there," a local official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The government's security forces have retreated to their bases and militants are now manning the checkpoints in and out of the town."
The official said the militants had also seized Rada's central prison and police headquarters. The extremists also took over the intelligence HQ.
According to a local tribal chief, more than 100 prisoners were released, "including members of Al-Qaeda." Two soldiers guarding the prison were killed, officials said.
"Armed terrorist elements" broke into "the Rada central prison helping a group of prisoners held on criminal charges escape," defence ministry news website 26sep.net reported.
Two people were killed later during an exchange of fire between gunmen and Al-Qaeda in a central market area, one official said.
A government official also said that "10 policemen" were abducted.
Residents said extremists were patrolling the town in vehicles carrying Al-Qaeda's flag -- black with "There is no god but God" printed in white -- and pictures of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the network's leader.
"Rada is now an Islamist down," militants announced by loudhailer.
The takeover began late Sunday and was completed by dawn on Monday without significant resistance from security forces, tribal officials said.
"There were barely any clashes at all," one told AFP.
Tribesmen have accused the government of complacency and said that despite repeated warnings, the government did little to prevent Rada's fall.
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"We've been warning the authorities about the Al-Qaeda threat for months. We told them that their actions and behaviour pointed to their intentions to take over," tribal leader Sheikh Ammar Al-Teiri told AFP.
"The government has absolutely no role here any more."
Teiri said local tribesmen decided to join forces and help protect the city from Al-Qaeda, "but they showed up in such force it became clear that in this town at least, they were stronger than the state."
The takeover of Rada, in Al-Bayda province, was accompanied by what appears to be the formal appointment of a local "emir," or prince, to govern the newly seized territory.
Tribal officials said the post went to Tareq al-Dahab, a brother-in-law of slain US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi who was killed in a suspected US drone strike in September.
Dahab's brother Khaled accused security services commanded by the nephew of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh of "being involved in handing over" the town to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP and its local affiliates, the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), have taken advantage of almost a full year of deadly protests against Saleh to bolster their presence in the southeastern Shabwa province and nearby Marib.
Abyan province in the south has been the main target of Al-Qaeda's growing strength, with militants seizing provincial capital Zinjibar in May and several other towns since.
Zinjibar's chief tribal leader, Sheikh Tariq al-Fadl, called on Yemeni authorities to find a "peaceful, political solution" to the Al-Qaeda threat.
"The fact is that Al-Qaeda is in control of Abyan and Shabwa among other areas and is implementing Islamic law in these places," he told AFP by phone.
"A military solution is no longer possible."
Fadl accused Saleh and his sons who control Yemen's most powerful military units of abandoning the south.
"Where are the special forces... that Saleh and his sons control? Why have they not come to cleanse Zinjibar" of militants, he asked.
News of Al-Qaeda's victory quickly spread through Bayda, prompting thousands from the provincial capital -- also named Bayda -- to march in anti-government protests, demanding the governor's resignation and removal of regional security chiefs.
Opposition groups have repeatedly accused Saleh of intentionally allowing militants to take towns and cities to convince Western leaders that a Yemen without him at the helm will fall to extremists.
Hundreds of militants and soldiers have been killed in battles between Islamist fighters and government forces.