SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni army sappers entered a northern Shi’ite rebel stronghold to clear mines after rebels quit the city of Saada as part of a truce to end a war that has drawn in Saudi Arabia, the defense ministry said on Saturday.
But tension flared in southern Yemen where authorities imposed heightened security measures in a provincial capital to guard against attacks by separatists.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, struck a truce on February 11 with rebels who have been fighting the state since 2004 over religious, economic and social grievances in the mountainous north.
The two-week-old northern truce has largely held, while a conflict with southern separatists has simmered.
The rebels left their Saada stronghold, some 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, on Thursday on condition they were masked, and that they were not followed by security.
“After the evacuation, special military engineering teams moved to survey the city and a number of roads and buildings to remove any mines,” the defense ministry said in its online newspaper.
The engineers were also removing unexploded ordnance.
A number of displaced residents of the city had also begun to return to inspect their houses in Saada, the website said. The conflict in north Yemen has displaced 250,000 people.
Yemen has shot to the forefront of Western security concerns after the Yemeni arm of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in December.
Western governments and neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability on several fronts in Yemen to recruit and train militants to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Saudi Arabia was drawn into the conflict with northern rebels in November after the insurgents seized Saudi border territory and accused Riyadh of letting Yemeni troops attack them from Saudi ground.
In Riyadh, where Western and Arab donors were meeting to discuss economic aid for Yemen, a Yemeni official said Sanaa wanted “a faster march” to membership in the wealthier six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.
“Yemen is convinced that its integration within the GCC represents one of the most important means...to enable Yemen to contribute in consolidating regional and international security,” said Abdulkareem al-Arhabi, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy, Planning and International Cooperation.
Yemen has previously said it wanted GCC membership by 2015.
In south Yemen on Saturday, authorities said they would toughen security measures in the provincial capital of Dalea, including a ban on carrying weapons in public, citing the possibility of separatist violence two days after a policeman was shot dead in an ambush in a nearby province.
An official earlier said a state of emergency was called in the city but the defense ministry website later denied this.
Hundreds demonstrating in Dalea on Saturday against recent arrests, some carrying the flag of the former South Yemen, which united with the North in 1990, residents and pro-southern websites said.
A southern leader called in a speech on the donors meeting in Riyadh to address the unresolved conflict in the south.
“The marches today ... carry a message to the Riyadh meeting and to the world (toward) the fulfillment of the just demands of the people of the south,” Shalal Ali Shayeh told protesters.
People in south Yemen, home to most Yemeni oil facilities, complain that northerners have abused a 1990 agreement uniting the country to grab resources and discriminate against them.
Demonstrations were also held in several other cities, some shut by a strike call by southern activists, websites said. In Abyan province two people were wounded as security forces opened fire to disperse protesters blocking a road.
The policeman’s death on Thursday brought to four the number of people killed in attacks on southern security men in a week as authorities also mounted arrest sweeps targeting separatists.
Tension flared after a protester was killed on February 13 by police. This ignited a week of unrest in which separatists burned northern-owned shops and tried to block a key road.
Security officials have since launched sweeps that netted at least 130 arrests in four southern provinces including Dalea.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaff in Aden, and Ulf Laessing and Souhail Karam in Riyadh; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Angus MacSwan