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Hani Mohammed, Associated Press
A view of Radaa castle, background, which was seized by al-Qaida militants in Radaa city south east of Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. For the past two days, around 200 al-Qaida militants have been occupying a 500-year-old mosque and school and their surroundings in the central province of Bayda. On Friday the militants overran the building, which has not been in use for years. The site was a tourist attraction in the town of Radda.

SANAA, Yemen — Al-Qaida militants seized full control of a town south of the Yemeni capital on Monday, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing its inmates, security officials said.

The capture of Radda in Bayda province, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Sanaa, underscores the growing strength of al-Qaida in Yemen as it continues to take advantage of the weakness of a central government struggling to contain nearly a year of massive political unrest.

The officials said the militants in Radda threw a security ring around the town, 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 belonging to al-Qaida. The officials said some of the freed inmates joined the militants after they were given arms.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Monday's attack prompted stores and schools to close.

Bayda province is a key transit route between the capital and Yemen's southern provinces where the al-Qaida militants are most active. Islamist militants have already seized control of a swath of territory and towns in Abyan province in southern Yemen.

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-Qaida 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 has accused embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh of trying to torpedo a power transfer deal he signed last month by allowing security to deteriorate in the south of the country as a way of arguing that he must stay in power, which he has held since 1978.

The United States long considered Saleh a necessary ally in the fight against Yemen's active al-Qaida 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.