ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni special forces retook an army base and freed several hostages hours after al Qaeda militants disguised as security personnel seized the site in southeast Yemen, killing at least four soldiers, a military official said on Monday.
Dozens of militants had stormed the headquarters of the army's Second Division in the city of al-Mukalla and captured some military personnel. At least nine soldiers were wounded, the official said.
"The anti-terrorism special forces clashed with al Qaeda militants and killed a number of them," the official said. He said a number of militants were arrested, including some who had been wounded during the clashes.
The Islamist militants began their attack by blowing up a car laden with explosives near the base's gate, Saba state news agency said.
"They caused confusion because soldiers at the base thought they were being attacked by members of the Central Security apparatus," the official told Reuters earlier on Monday.
He said special forces personnel had been flown from Sanaa to Mukalla ahead of the operation to retake the base.
A resident said he heard several explosions and the army had cordoned off the area leading to the base. He said the army had evacuated residents from more than 50 houses in the area.
Yemen is battling one of the most active branches of al Qaeda, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has carried out a number of foiled attempts to attack U.S. targets, including airliners.
Yemen flanks vital shipping lanes, and the United States sees it as a front line in its war on al Qaeda and has used drones there for years to target the group.
On September 20, suspected al Qaeda militants killed dozens of Yemeni soldiers and policemen in attacks in the south, which officials described as the deadliest for more than a year.
Dozens of Yemeni security and military officers have been killed in the past two years, many by bombs planted in their cars or drive-by shootings, often blamed on AQAP or affiliated groups.
Intelligence pointing to an impending attack by AQAP prompted the United States and other Western countries to close many of their embassies temporarily in the Middle East, Africa and Asia last month.
The militants took advantage of political chaos in Yemen during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 to seize control of some towns and surrounding areas in the south of the country. They were beaten back by Yemeni forces with assistance from the United States and scattered into small groups spread across the country's rugged, remote southern terrain.
Yemen is also facing a growing secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion by the Houthis, a group of Zaydi Shi'ite Muslims, in the north.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Janet Lawrence)