ADEN, April 17 (Reuters) - The capture of much of eastern Yemen's oil-producing province by a newly-formed group of armed tribesmen and Sunni Muslim clerics has alarmed local officials, who say they fear the situation will be exploited by al Qaeda to expand.
The Arabian peninsula's poorest country is now divided between a Saudi-backed exiled government and Iran-backed Shi'ite fighters who control the capital.
The country is also home to one of the most lethal branches of al Qaeda, sheltering in tribal regions and targeted for years by U.S. drone strikes.
In recent days, troops appear to have abandoned much of the eastern province of Hadramawt, leaving it under control of a new group calling itself the Council of Sunni Scholars. The Council's armed tribesmen took charge of an airport and an oil facility in the province's seaside capital Mukalla on Thursday.
"The Council has designated local youth from the area to set up checkpoints near the area of the oil fields and export terminal and near the Al-Rayyan airport," said a local official. "The security situation there and in Mukalla is now under control and calm."
Local politicians say the Council, now effectively the de facto ruling authority in the province, is separate from al Qaeda but includes some figures associated with al Qaeda in the past.
It negotiated with al Qaeda gunmen who appeared on the streets of Mukalla two weeks ago, and since then appears to have reached some kind of accommodation with them, although the nature of that relationship appears ambiguous.
An official in the province told Reuters: "A local committee (of tribesmen) was formed to administer Hadramawt, and this committee benefits al Qaeda."
Nasser Ba Quzquz, a left-wing politician in the provincial capital, said a new feeling of local solidarity should not extend to al Qaeda.
"Yes, these people are sons of Hadramawt, but they belong to a terrorist organization. They kill people from Hadramawt, they rob banks and sow terror and fear."
Residents of Mukalla and other towns say al Qaeda fighters have become brazen in recent weeks, openly recruiting at rallies. During one gathering, a singer of jihadi songs named top political and security officers on a hit list.
The fighters' boldness may be one reason army units were so quick to abandon the province.
"Military units along the Hadramawt coast handed over their bases to tribesmen and returned to their home provinces out of fear that they would be attacked by al Qaeda," said a local army official.
Al Qaeda fighters in the area are drawn mostly from local tribes, who appear in some cases either to bless or at least not oppose the participation of their kin in the militant group.
Yemen's branch of the militant network, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has carried out years of bomb and gun attacks on the state, plotted to blow up U.S.-bound airliners and claimed responsibility for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January that killed 12.
It and other Sunni militants have stepped up attacks since Shi'ite militiamen from the north, known as Houthis, seized the capital in September and expanded across the country. Over the past three weeks, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing the Houthis.
Worsening fighting has raised the prospect of a full-blown sectarian civil war, often al Qaeda's aim in Arab countries where it operates.
Al Qaeda has been trying to stir up support against both the Houthis and the weak Yemeni state in Hadramawt.
"O brother Muslims in Hadramawt, your brothers among the holy warriors of Hadramawt have fought a number of battles in the capital and in the province to purify it of the tyrannical soldiers and Houthis," it said in a statement.
"Those who spread corruption fought those of us who wished to raise up God's word and implement his law on earth." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Michael Georgy and Peter Graff)