SANAA, Yemen - Al Qaeda militants seized full control of a town south of the Yemeni capital on Monday, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing at least 150 inmates, security officials said.
The capture of Radda in Bayda province, some 100 miles south of Sanaa, underscores the growing strength of al Qaeda in Yemen as it continues to take advantage of the weakness of a central government struggling to contain nearly a year of massive anti-government protests.
The opposition has accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is to step down this month in line with a power transfer deal, of allowing the militants to overrun the city to bolster his claims that he must remain in power to secure the country against the rising power of Islamist militants.
Security officials said the militants threw a security ring around Radda, preventing residents from leaving or entering, and killed two soldiers and wounded a third in clashes with army troops.
The fighters pushed into the town from several points they had captured over the weekend, including an ancient castle that overlooks the town, a school and a mosque. They freed 150-200 inmates, including an unspecified number of militants loyal to al Qaeda. The officials said some of the freed inmates joined the militants after they were given arms.
The militants seized weapon caches and vehicles from the security headquarters after killing two soldiers while the rest of the soldiers fled.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Monday's attack prompted stores and schools in Radda to close.
Bayda province is a key transit route between the capital and Yemen's southern provinces where al Qaeda-linked militants have already seized control of a swath of territory and towns in Abyan province.
An Associated Press photographer who visited Radda on Sunday said the militants were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons. He quoted residents as saying the black al Qaeda banner has been raised atop the mosque they captured over the weekend.
The security officials estimated the number of militants who attacked the town on Monday at around 200.
Yemen's opposition accused Saleh's regime of allowing the militants to take Radda unopposed.
"We are surprised by the silence of the security forces," said opposition activist Abel-Rahman al-Rashid, who lives in Radda. "They have not moved, which only means that this is all arranged to spark chaos."
Some tribal leaders accused Saleh of giving the "green light" to the militants to overrun the city.
The United States long considered Saleh a necessary ally in the fight against Yemen's active al Qaeda branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organization's most dangerous franchises. The U.S. withdrew its support last summer and said he should step down.
Islamist militants began seizing territory in Abyan province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May.
Yemeni security forces have been trying unsuccessfully to push them out since then in fierce fighting that has caused many casualties on both sides. The conflict has forced tens of thousands of civilians from Zinjibar and the surrounding area to flee, many to the port city of Aden.