ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni troops killed two people on Thursday when they opened fire on a rally in the southern province of Dalea calling for a boycott of an election to replace outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh, activists said.
Weakened by months of protests against Saleh's rule, the Yemeni government has lost control of whole chunks of the country, giving southern separatists, northern Shi'ite rebels and Islamist militants a window to further their goals.
A senior officer was killed late on Thursday in a hail of bullets fired by militants riding motorcycles, said witnesses in the southern province of Lahej, underscoring the security challenges Yemen faces as it prepares to go to the polls.
Separatists seeking to revive a southern socialist state that Saleh united with the north in 1990 have been demonstrating against the vote, scheduled for February 21, and northern Shi'ite rebels have also said they will not take part.
"The army forces located at military positions overlooking the town opened fire on thousands of people protesting against the upcoming presidential elections," a leader of the southern separatist movement told Reuters.
"One demonstrator died immediately and another 12 were injured, while another man who was standing on the balcony of a hotel adjacent to the electoral committee's office was killed by a stray bullet."
The election is part of a plan hammered out by Yemen's Gulf neighbors to end a year of political upheaval.
A website close to Saleh's General People's Congress party cited security sources blaming the violence in Dalea on armed groups from the southern movement, whom it said had attacked the electoral committee's office using rocket propelled grenades and other weapons, killing a 14-year-old boy.
Unidentified gunmen attacked the electoral committee's office in Dalea last month.
Saudi Arabia and the United States are keen for the election to go ahead, fearing instability in Yemen is giving al Qaeda's regional wing room to expand its foothold there, near key oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.
But some southerners, who say northerners have seized their resources and discriminate against them, have been burning their voting cards in protest at the election, in which Yemen's acting leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is the sole candidate.
The former president of south Yemen said his people would not give up their fight for independence.
"Crimes like these (committed on Thursday) will not dissuade us from continuing our peaceful struggle until our people are given their freedom and independence," wrote Ali Salem al-Bayd in an e-mail sent to Reuters.
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sophie Hares)