SANAA — At least 16 people were killed and 30 wounded in shelling and gunfire during clashes on Thursday between government forces and armed activists at a separatist rally in south Yemen, witnesses said.
The demonstration at Jinzibar, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the southern port of Aden, was called by Tarek al-Fadhli, an Islamist leader and former key ally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Fadhli recently switched sides to support the secession of south Yemen from the north, they said.
"The clashes killed 16 people, including six policemen, and wounded 30 people, including 10 government forces," a separatist activist close to Fadhli who asked not to be identified told AFP.
Witnesses earlier spoke of 12 dead and dozens wounded in the fighting.
Fadhli had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan along with Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and then helped Saleh crush southern separatists in 1994.
The impoverished Arabian Peninsula country is the ancestral home of the Al-Qaeda leader.
Despite a security crackdown aimed at preventing Thursday's protest, Fadhli supporters and other armed elements were able to fire shells at the local police headquarters and other public buildings, a local official told AFP.
The witnesses said soldiers fired live rounds to disperse the protesters and also shelled Fadhli's house in the town.
According to unconfirmed reports the deputy chief of police was among those killed.
Security forces deployed on roads to Jinzibar to prevent armed men from the mountain village of Yafaa to the north from joining Fadhli's supporters, leading to clashes between the fighters and the troops, the witnesses said.
They also reported that phone lines in Jinzibar were cut for a time.
The fighting subsided in the late afternoon but tension remained high, they said.
Sporadic clashes in the south have left at least 38 people dead since protests erupted in late April.
The Sanaa government has blamed the unrest on southern rebels demanding secession, but many in the impoverished south have been protesting against poor living conditions.
Local people feel they are the victims of discrimination by the north and have received inadequate economic help.
Socialists who formerly ruled the south led a secession bid in 1994 that sparked a two-month civil war before the uprising was crushed by northern forces loyal to Saleh.
Earlier this month witnesses said the authorities had arrested hundreds of separatist activists in Aden, as they stifled efforts to mark the 15th anniversary of the end of the civil war.
Addressing the nation ahead of unification day on May 22, Saleh urged his adversaries to resolve the crisis through talks and confirmed the constitution would be amended soon, mainly to increase decentralisation.
The ruling party and opposition have already agreed to delay a general election, which had been due in April, for two years.
But Saleh made no mention of wider political autonomy for the south, which sits on 80 percent of Yemen's oil and gas resources.
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