Yemen officials have stepped up security measures to head off any militant threats to a Gulf football tournament the country is holding in the south, seen by many as a test of its control over the troubled region.
Officials said 30,000 Yemeni troops had been deployed to maintain calm in south Yemen, a site of bloody clashes as the government struggles to subdue both separatist and Islamist militants.
The Gulf Cup will be held in the southern port town of Aden, at a football stadium hit by two explosions last month and blamed on separatists, as well as in a new stadium in Abyan, a flashpoint southern province where state forces recently launched a campaign to root out al Qaeda militants.
"There are no security concerns now, we have strengthened security to assure our Gulf brothers that everything is safe," a security official said on Saturday, two days ahead of the cup.
Officials expect around 13,000 cars full of Gulf visitors to arrive, but locals say they have seen only a few dozen cars.
Dozens of new checkpoints dot major streets, hotels and sports stadiums, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived late on Friday to praise security measures, many of which were planned by an American firm hired for the cup.
The 20th Gulf Cup will host teams from every Gulf Arab state as well as Iraq, in an event analysts say will test Yemen's ability to ensure security in the volatile south.
North and south Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh but the bumpy merger lead to a brief civil war in 1994. Many in the south, home to most of Yemen's oil wealth, say the state discriminates against them while exploiting their resources.
Failure to prevent any attack during the tournament would be a huge blow to Yemen, which rose to the forefront of Western security concerns when two U.S.-bound parcel bombs claimed by al Qaeda were intercepted in Britain and Dubai last month.
Southern separatists have threatened to organize mass protests against the cup. They see it as a ploy to promote unity under Saleh's rule.
Two soldiers and one civilian were wounded on Saturday as security forces broke up protests in the southern Dalea province, as hundreds of southern separatists protested Yemen's hosting of the Gulf Cup. Another two soldiers were wounded when activists threw a grenade at them after the protest.
Yemen is under rising pressure from neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia as well as Western powers to quell a southern separatist movement in the south and cement a shaky truce with Shi'ite rebels in the north in order to focus on quashing a resurgent regional al Qaeda wing based in the country.
Even as the focus shifts to southern security ahead of the Gulf Cup, tensions have flared in north Yemen among Shi'ite rebels. Shi'ite rebels have clashed with government aligned tribesmen and bombed several homes in the north Yemen province of Munabih over the past three days, a security official said.
Several people have been killed or wounded in the clashes, which are continuing, he said; but there was no estimate yet for casualties. Rebel officials declined to comment.