Gunmen shot dead two Yemeni soldiers Wednesday in the main southern city of Aden, a police official said, as thousands rallied there to call for secession from the north.
"The gunmen opened fire on two soldiers in plain clothes near the qat (mild narcotic) market in the neighbourhood of Khor Maksar, killing one and seriously wounding another," who later died of his injuries, a police official told AFP.
The attack took place as thousands of Yemenis rallied in Aden to call for secession from the north as they commemorated the day the formerly independent south won freedom from Britain.
"The people want to liberate the south," the protesters chanted in the city which served as the capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen during its 23 years of independence.
Late on Tuesday, a similar crowd had gathered in the city brandishing PDRY flags, as well as portraits of Ali Salem al-Baid, who served as the last president of an independent south before union with the north in 1990 and who now lives in exile.
"No union no federation, out out occupation," they chanted as fireworks lit the sky, an AFP correspondent reported.
Baid, who now heads the radical wing of the Southern Movement which calls for renewed secession, released a statement saying he remains determined to "continue the struggle until we achieve our national aspirations for independence."
He urged other states to "support the rights of southerners to determine their own fate."
The leftist PDRY won independence from Britain in 1967 after a guerrilla uprising.
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Four years after union with the north, it attempted to break away again, sparking a short-lived civil war that ended with it being overrun by northern troops
Many residents of the south complain of discrimination by the Sanaa government in the distribution of resources, sparking frequent protests, with demands ranging from economic and social improvements to full independence.
Members of the moderate wing of the Southern Movement, who champion only increased autonomy, held a meeting last week in Cairo chaired by another former PDRY president, Ali Nasser Mohammed.
In a statement, they called for a "federation for five years after which southerners would determine their own fate based on a referendum which will be held after this period."
The increasingly restive south has been hit not only by the Southern Movement's campaign for self-rule but also by deadly clashes between the army and militants loyal to Al-Qaeda who have seized a string of towns in Abyan province east of Aden and who are also present in neighbouring Shabwa.
The militants have taken advantage of the weakening of central authority since mass protests broke out in January against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power in Sanaa since 1978.
The army on Tuesday killed six Qaeda-linked militants in their stronghold of Zinjibar, capital of the restive southern province of Abyan, a local official said.
Army forces shelled "Al-Qaeda hideouts" in Zinjibar killing "four -- an Iraqi, a Saudi, a Yemeni and a Nigerian," the source said, adding that two others militants were killed in an ambush on their vehicle by soldiers.
The deaths were the latest in a string of casualties in Abyan, where government troops are struggling to wrest control of at least three provincial cities, including Zinjibar, that have fallen since May to the Qaeda-linked group, the Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law).