AQAP Khalid Batarfi Yemen Presidential cropped
AQAP operative Khalid Batarfi took selfies in the Yemen presidential palaceSource: Twitter

An al-Qaeda operative freed in a prison assault in Yemen has exploited chaos caused by fighting in the country to take a touristic tour of government buildings and posted photos of the visit online.

Khalid Batarfi, a high-ranking member of the jihadi group's powerful Yemeni branch al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is seen posing with a smile inside the local provincial governor palace in the southern port of al-Mukalla, in pictures circulated on social media.

In one he is seen comfortably sitting on a sumptuous sofa, holding a Kalashnikov with one hand while using the palace's phone with the other.

A second image shows him disrespectfully stepping on the Yemeni national flag, underneath a lavish chandelier.

Terror selfies

The pictures were posted online only days after Batarfi and another 300 inmates escaped from the town's central jail during an attack by AQAP.

Earlier this week, the Sunni extremists took advantage of clashes involving a Shiite rebellion and a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen to launch a surprise assault on Mukalla, the capital of the central province of Hadramawt.

After overrunning the prison, the militants seized government buildings, the port and a major army base, reportedly facing little resistance. They now seem to have consolidated their hold on the coastal city on the Gulf of Aden.

Mukalla was previously controlled by forces loyal to toppled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country for Saudi Arabia after Shiite Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen's capital Sanaa, earlier this year.

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The takeover prompted Saudi Arabia to put together a coalition of Arab states that has been carrying out bombing Houthi positions since the end of March. The Sunni kingdom and its allies claim that the insurgency has been fuelled and supported by their rival, Iran.

AQAP, which was has been leading a separate Islamist rebellion antagonised by both the Houthis and the Hadi government in recent years, is exploiting the security vacuum to its favour further expanding its sway in the country.

Meanwhile, tribal forces in Hadramawt have pledged to retake Mukalla.

"The leadership of the tribal alliance of Hadramawt… calls on tribes to mobilize towards Mukalla to keep the peace and stability in Mukalla and other towns in the province," a local tribal alliance said in a statement, Reuters reported.

Control over Hadramawt is strategically important as the province shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, has sea access to the Gulf of Aden and houses key oil companies and fuel tanks that feed three other provinces.