ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni gunmen attacked a security patrol in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday, killing one soldier and wounding another, a local official said, and unidentified assailants threw two hand grenades at a government building.
The attacks hinted at rising unrest in the strategic port city, which neighbours Abyan, a violence-prone southern province where Islamist militants, said by the government to have links with al Qaeda, are challenging army control.
More than six months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule have paralysed the Arab world’s poorest state, plunging it into a crisis that has confounded international attempts at mediating a transfer of power.
While Saleh recovers in Saudi Arabia from a June bomb blast on his presidential compound, militants in Abyan have seized at least two cities, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
Tens of thousands of Abyan residents have fled to Aden, which sits east of a strategic sea channel through which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Security forces had tried to buffer Aden from rising violence in the south by surrounding the city.
But last month, a blast in a booby-trapped car killed a long-time British resident of Aden, and four days later a suicide bomber drove his car into an army checkpoint just outside the city, killing nine Yemeni soldiers.
On Tuesday, assailants lobbed two hand grenades at Aden’s provincial administration building, damaging an outer wall.
A loose coalition of troops and tribesmen launched an offensive in Abyan last month to try to dislodge Islamist militants but they have yet to regaining lost ground.
Opponents of Saleh, who previously earned U.S. backing by presenting himself as an ally in the West’s counter-terrorism strategy, say he deliberately let militants take over parts of Yemen to show only he can keep al Qaeda’s local wing in check.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have both been targeted by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and fear it is exploiting chaos in Yemen to expand its foothold in the impoverished state.
Washington and Riyadh have pressed Saleh to sign a Gulf-brokered deal that would ease him from power, but he backed out of it three times at the very last minute, leaving Yemen in a political deadlock that risks a descent into wider violence.
Reporting by Mohammed Muhkashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alistair Lyon