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Civilians return to militant zone

At least 2,000 displaced Yemenis have returned home to a restive area in the country's south that has been under the control of al Qaida-linked militants for more than seven months.

Their return to Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan province, provides some of the first civilian views of the Islamic rule the militants have begun to set up in the poorly governed hinterlands of the Arab world's poorest country - a zone where armed men from a various Arab countries move about in new Toyota trucks and vow to implement strict Islamic law.

The militants have taken advantage of the security collapse across Yemen during 11 months of mass protests calling for the ousting of long-time autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A wily politician who has ruled for 33 years, Mr Saleh is due to transfer power later this month to his vice president under a US-backed deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Persian Gulf neighbours.

The US has long considered Mr Saleh a necessary ally in combatting Yemen's active al Qaida branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on US soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organisation's most dangerous franchises.

Militants began seizing territory in Yemen's southern Abyan province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May. They call their organisation Ansar al-Shariah, or Partisans of Shariah, which is linked to al Qaida.

Yemeni security forces have been trying unsuccessfully to push them out since then in fierce fighting that has caused regular 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. Some made their first efforts to return last month, staging two marches from Aden. Both times, militants turned them back, saying the city was not safe.

But the return was coordinated with the militant group. More than 2,000 residents entered Zinjibar, where the militants welcomed them with fizzy drinks and biscuits then slaughtered cows for dinner, said resident Abdel-Hakim al-Marqashi.

Before dinner, however, all gathered in the city centre for an address by Abu Hamza, who was introduced as the prince of what the militants declared a new Islamic state. Mr Al-Marqashi said Abu Hamza told the crowd that they were now "safe and secure", and that the leaders of the Islamic emirate will work to restore services like water and electricity and impose justice according to Islamic Shariah law.

Abu Hamza said the group had set up an Islamic court to deal with crimes and problems between residents.

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