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Militants seize parts of Yemen city

Islamic militants have launched a surprise dawn attack on a provincial capital in southern Yemen, seizing entire neighbourhoods of the city after gunfights with government forces.

Al Qaida members were believed to be among the attackers and after the dawn raid the militants were in control of several neighbourhoods of Houta, the provincial capital of Lahj province, officials said.

They also said that bands of militants drove through some neighbourhoods in the southern port city of Aden early on Wednesday, opening fire on security and forces.

Islamic militants, taking advantage of more than four months of political turmoil in Yemen, attacked and seized two other southern cities in Abyan province in late May.

Massive anti-regime protests have swept much of the country since February and rival forces are squaring up to each other in the capital, Sanaa, after days of fierce fighting earlier this month.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's president of nearly 33 years, is in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, undergoing treatment for injuries he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Sanaa.

The capture of Zinjibar and Jaar in Abyan province and the attacks in Houta and Aden suggest a further weakening of the central government's authority which, if left unchecked, could cause the impoverished nation in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula to unravel or fall deeper into chaos.

In Washington, the State Department's counter-terror co-ordinator said that the US is worried the ongoing unrest in Yemen could fuel connections between al Qaida-linked militants there and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia. Daniel Benjamin said insurgents in Yemen are operating more in the open and have been able to acquire and hold more territory.

Residents in Shabwa, one of the al Qaida strongholds in southern Yemen, are reporting intensifying overflights by US drones, suggesting the Americans are keeping close watch on the situation.

The CIA is trying to speed up construction of a Persian Gulf base for its drones, but the process is being held up by logistical delays, US officials said. They added that it is at least eight months away from completion.

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