DUBAI (Reuters) - Supporters of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the streets of Yemen's capital on Friday for the first time since he signed a peace agreement last month as violence broke out on other fronts in the country.
Seven Islamist militants connected to al Qaeda were killed in southern Yemen, residents of a city occupied by the militants said. Also in the south, rebel fighters killed a security officer.
Clashes between security forces, Islamist militants and separatists have become common in the south after nearly a year of protests calling for the end of Saleh's 33-year rule eroded government control in the south.
Pro-Saleh protesters gathered near the presidential palace in the capital Sanna on Friday waving Yemeni flags and photographs of the outgoing president.
"We all said signing the Gulf initiative will end protests so that life can go back to normal, but the opposition continued its protests, so that's why were back," said demonstrator Murad al-Unsi.
Saleh's General People's Congress party had ended protests in accordance with a Gulf-brokered peace initiative meant to pull Yemen back from the brink of civil war.
"The opposition doesn't want to calm the situation. They want to get rid of all the supporters of the People's Congress and we are here to defend ourselves," said Saleh al-Matari as he held up a picture of Saleh.
Saleh said on Saturday he would go to Washington. The United States is considering whether it will grant him a visa.
Any successor to Saleh faces overlapping conflicts throughout the country, including a Shi'ite Muslim rebellion in the north and renewed separatist sentiment in the south, which fought a civil war with Saleh's north in 1994 after four turbulent years of formal union.
Washington and Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, both fear continued chaos would allow al Qaeda to build on its already strong presence in the country, which is close to important oil shipping lanes.
Seven Islamist militants connected to al Qaeda were killed in southern Yemen, one of them a nephew of Naser al-Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, residents said.
Three were killed during battles in Zinjibar, the capital of
province Abyan. They included leaders Asem al-Wuhayshi, Ibrahim al-Siyri and Huthayfa al-Abi.
The militant group posted fliers in the markets and mosques of Jiar to announce their deaths.
Four other members of al Qaeda were killed in an accident in a warehouse in al-Husn when an explosive device they were assembling went off.
Islamist militants have controlled parts of southern Yemen since May as the protests against Saleh weakened government control of the area.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have seen Saleh as a bulwark against al Qaeda in Yemen and fear that his departure will give the militant group the opportunity to expand its grip on the country's south.
Last week a U.S. drone attack killed another relative of the al Qaeda leader in one of the group's strongholds in the strife-torn country.
Islamist fighters have seized chunks of territory in the southern Abyan province. Fighting there has forced tens of thousands of people to flee, compounding a humanitarian crisis in a country where about half a million people are displaced.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Nour Merza; Editing by Angus MacSwan)