ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Hundreds of people displaced by months of fighting in southern Yemen returned to their home city on Saturday as armed Islamist militants and government troops looked on, residents said, in what many hoped could be a step towards ending the conflict.
"The army controls the east of Zinjibar and the Ansar al-Sunna hold the western part of the city," Khalid al Saeed said, referring to a group which the government says is linked to al Qaeda.
"Both sides had agreed with our request to return. The army told us to avoid some areas where there are land mines," Saeed said, adding that there was widespread destruction during eight months of fighting.
Thousands of Yemenis have held protests demanding an end to the fighting that has forced them to flee their homes in the south, holding several 50 km (31 mile) marches from the port city of Aden to Zinjibar, capital of southern Abyan province where the militants have seized swathes of territory.
The southern fighting is one of many challenges facing the impoverished state, which has also been rocked by nearly a year of protests against the 33-year rule of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The United States and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia are both concerned about the growing chaos in the country, which is close to oil shipping routes.
In continued unrest, gunmen believed the be from al Qaeda shot dead a pro-government tribesman outside the city of Lawdar in Abyan province on Saturday, a security official told Reuters.
In the capital, a 48-hour deadline given to armed opponents and backers of Saleh to withdraw after months of street fighting passed but there was little change in the armed face off, residents said.
A committee tasked with overseeing the demilitarisation of the capital reiterated on Saturday its demand on rival forces to withdraw, and thanked those which had pulled back, state news agency Saba reported.
Tribal fighters led by Saleh's opponents and Republican Guard troops commanded by the veteran leader's son are still deployed in several areas of Sanaa, including the northern district of Hasaba, scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
In late December, militants shot in the air to stop a march to Zinjibar by activists among the displaced who were calling on both sides to lay down their arms in the south and demanded the government open the Aden-Zinjibar coastal highway, a key trade route closed during the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has backed a Gulf Arab peace plan to resolve the anti-Saleh uprising, under which the president handed power to his deputy. A presidential election is scheduled for February.
But the fighting against the Islamist militants in the south has continued, forcing about 97,000 people to flee. More than 300,000 others have been displaced by a conflict in the north, according to U.N. estimates.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Peter Graff)