ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen's al Qaeda wing has ordered men and women in the east to obey its strict interpretation of Islamic law, saying it aimed to set up an emirate in the remote area, local media and a resident said.
The announcement by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will stoke concerns about the territorial ambitions of militant groups weeks after al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State declared its own caliphate across parts of Syria and Iraq.
AQAP - one of the most active branches of the global militant network - has been shifting its operations to Yemen's eastern Hadramout province after the army, backed by U.S. drones, helped drive it out of southern strongholds this year.
The impoverished country neighboring the world's biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is also facing southern separatists, northern rebels and political turmoil that surged after 2011 protests unseated president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Leaflets in AQAP's name have been distributed in shops, streets and villages in rural Hadramout over the past two days, Saleh Barzeeq, a shop owner in Seiyoun, told Reuters, confirming media reports.
"These leaflets warned women from going to shops or going out without being accompanied by a mahram (male guardian,)" he said by telephone.
According to local media, one statement read: "AQAP warns male and female Muslims in Wadi Hadramout that they must adhere to the laws of Islamic Sharia after the debauchery that we have seen in the souks."
"We warn all women that they have to adhere to the Sharia-enforced hijab and (wear gloves) ... men must not enter women's souks unless strictly necessary ... Whoever violates this, will have to bear punishment," it said, according to the report in al-Ayyam newspaper.
Reuters has not seen a copy of the leaflet.
The statement also forbade women from taking part in any sports and declared the measures would pave the way for setting up an Islamic emirate in Wadi Hadramout, Barzeeq added.
Women in traditionally conservative Yemen already generally wear full veils that covers their face and body and in rural areas especially, keep a low profile. The constitution says Islamic law, sharia, is the source for all legislation though the state does not enforce all parts of it.
Another statement circulated on social media that was attributed to Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda's local name, warned "all the corrupt officials in Hadramout who have stolen and looted citizens' properties ... that we will enforce God's law on them, which is cutting off their hands, after we kidnap and discipline them."
In May, suspected al Qaeda militants raided Seiyoun city in Hadramout, and targeted the main military posts, the local police headquarters, bank branches and the airport, in an attack that left 27 people dead.
AQAP in 2011 declared a number of Islamic "emirates" in southern towns, exploiting a security vacuum during the protests.
The army drove them out a year later. But during their tenure, residents said al Qaeda woke people at dawn to pray and chopped off the hands of thieves.
Yemen and the West are concerned about the growing ambitions of militant groups in the region.
Earlier this month, U.S. national security sources said bomb makers from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, and AQAP were believed to be working together to try to develop explosives that could avoid detection by airport screening systems.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Sami Aboudi)