Yemen: Gunmen raid southern Yemen town of Houta

Anti-government protesters in Taiz, 15 June Protesters have held near-daily demonstrations since February

Dozens of gunmen have attacked government buildings in the southern Yemeni town of Houta, sparking fierce clashes that have killed one policeman.

The brazen dawn raid follows the capture of two other southern cities - Zinjibar and Jaar - last month.

Officials say al-Qaeda is exploiting a power vacuum left by months of protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The opposition says the claim has been invented to boost Western support for the regime.

Mr Saleh, the country's president of nearly 33 years, is in Saudi Arabia for treatment for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Sanaa earlier this month.

Massive anti-regime protests have swept much of the country since February. After months of largely peaceful protest, the crisis escalated this month, with government forces and heavily-armed tribesman involved in pitched battles in the capital. More than 200 people were killed in the fighting.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) have offered to mediate a peaceful resolution to Yemen's political crisis, but efforts thus far have failed.

Meanwhile, US reports say the Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to operate armed drone aircraft over Yemen to target al-Qaeda suspects.

Map

The Washington Post newspaper says the CIA drones would join unmanned craft run by the US military, whose co-operation with Yemeni forces has been disrupted by the political turmoil there.

The recent capture of Zinjibar and Jaar - in Abyan province - and Wednesday's attacks in Houta in the neighbouring Lahij province suggest a further weakening of the central government's authority.

Analysts fear that, left unchecked, the worsening security situation could cause the impoverished nation to fall deeper into chaos.

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