Yemen's Daesh affiliate claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that struck a naval base in the southern port city of Mukalla at dawn Thursday, killing at least six troops in the first major attack by Daesh militants in Yemen this year.
Officers from a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's internationally recognized government have been seen recently at the base but it was not immediately clear if any of the coalition troops were present at the time of the attack.
The Daesh affiliate in Yemen, which has largely been eclipsed by the rival al-Qaida branch, emerged during the country's civil war, seeking to expand its footprint amid the turmoil gripping the country. Since March last year, Yemen has been immersed in a conflict pitting the country's Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies against President Abed Rabbo Mansour's government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
In Thursday's attack, the bomber rammed his car into a checkpoint manned by Yemeni troops outside the naval base, sending a plume of heavy black smoke into the sky in the morning hours, security officials said. Ambulances were seen rushing to the sites and images posted on networking sites showed the aftermath of the attack.
In an online statement posted by the group's supporters on Twitter, Daesh identified the suicide bomber as Hamza al-Muhajer, saying he detonated his vehicle at the headquarters of "Hadi's apostate militias" — a reference to forces loyal to Hadi's government.
Almost at the same time, two other explosions hit the military headquarters in Mukalla, according to the officials, who said the blasts set off fierce clashes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government troops last month routed al-Qaida fighters from Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadramawt. After the militants withdrew, Saudi and Emirati officers were seen in the city.
U.S. warplanes and drones have carried several airstrikes targeting al-Qaida training camps and vehicles in the same region over the past months.
Last week, U.S. officials said the Pentagon is providing military support, intelligence, ships and special operations forces to help in the ongoing operations against al-Qaida militants in Yemen. A senior U.S. official said that American special operations forces are advising Yemeni and Emirati forces there but that they are working at the headquarters' level and are not near the front lines.
After its withdrawal from Mukalla, al-Qaida said in a statement that it pulled out to spare the city of destruction. The coalition claimed it killed 800 militants but al-Qaida supporters and witnesses largely denied those claims.
Throughout its year-long rule of Mukalla, al-Qaida forged an alliance with local forces fighting the Houthis in cities like Taiz and Aden. Those local fighters are backed by the Saudi-led coalition, a reflection of the complexities of Yemen's conflict.