Al-Qaeda militants began to pull out of two southern Yemeni town on Thursday, residents said, following weeks of mediation by tribesmen for them to exit peacefully rather than resist a Gulf coalition-backed offensive.
Dozens of fighters in Zinjibar and Jaar, the two largest towns in southwestern Abyan province, were seen leaving with their weapons to the surrounding countryside.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), widely considered the most dangerous branch of the global militant group, took advantage of over a year of war in Yemen to seize towns along a 370-mile stretch of Arabian Sea coastline.
But Yemeni troops backed by a Saudi-led military coalition pushed the group out of its main base in the port city of Mukalla late last month, depriving them of the estimated $2 million a day in revenue from port taxes and fuel smuggling.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies intervened in the civil war in Yemen on March 26 last year in support of Yemen's government after it was pushed into exile by the Iran-allied Houthi group.
The war has killed more than 6,200 people, displaced more than 2.5 million and caused a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world's poorest countries.
Coalition bombing had mostly ignored the steady rise of AQAP until forces funded and trained by the United Arab Emirates launched a surprise attack to win Mukalla last month.
The Saudi-led coalition said that offensive killed 800 al-Qaeda fighters and several leaders, though Mukalla residents told Reuters the number appeared unlikely and the group withdrew largely without a fight.
AQAP said it had retreated from the port on Yemen's south coast to protect civilians and save the city of around 120,000 from destruction, adding that only a handful of its fighters had been killed.
"We only withdrew to prevent the enemy from moving the battle to your homes, markets, roads and mosques," the group said in a rare statement posted on Twitter.
The Saudi-led coalition's armed push toward Qaeda-held towns in Abyan and neighboring Lahj province proved more difficult, and militants launched repeated suicide attacks against Yemeni forces.
Also on Thursday, a US military official said the US is providing military, intelligence, naval, and special operations forces support to ongoing operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen, according to the Associated Press.
A senior US official told the AP that US special operations forces are "advising the Yemeni and Emirati forces in the region, and that they are working at the headquarters level and are not near the conflict."
The overall US military support to the coalition includes planning, airborne surveillance, intelligence gathering, medical support, refueling, and maritime interdiction, according to Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain Jeff Davis.
"Trained and supported by an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Yemeni government forces and resistance fighters have retaken Mukalla and continue their offensive against AQAP in eastern Yemen," Davis said."AQAP remains a significant security threat to the United States and to our regional partners and we welcome this effort to specifically remove AQAP from Mukalla and to degrade, disrupt and destroy AQAP in Yemen."
Several Naval ships are in the area, including the USS Boxer amphibious ready group, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and the destroyers the USS Gravely and USS Gonzalez.