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JACKI LYDEN, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden. In Yemen, Islamist fighters who are said to be affiliated with al-Qaida are maintaining their grip on a small city in the southern part of the country after an attack forced some 90,000 people to flee their homes. Officials say months of anti-government protests and rising violence in Yemen have left the door open for such militant incursions. But local residents suspect something more sinister. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Yemen's southern city of Aden and sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS: The trouble in the city of Zinjibar started about two months ago. Militants stormed the town, captured government buildings and looted the central bank. Government forces responded by dropping bombs from planes. People fled their homes and ended up in schools in the larger city of Aden, nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

MCEVERS: This is a classroom. You know, there's four ceiling fans and fluorescent lights and a big tile floor. And now there are beds and people's entire belongings piled up in the corner. There's a little tricycle, a little fan, some beds, a couple of kids.

Eyad Salem Adelkhalin says he and his three children had no choice but to flee his home.

EYAD SALEM ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says the armed militants had long hair and long beards and spoke Arabic with accents from other countries. He says they were big and strong and wore military vests packed with bullets.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: They called themselves Ansar al Shariah, or Supporters of Islamic law. They said they wanted to rid the region of corruption. They offered to protect the people of Zinjibar.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: But the government airstrikes are because of you, Adelkhalin says he told the militants. You brought this trouble to our homes. Despite the bombings, the army made little progress against the militants. Adelkhalin says local tribesmen joined in to fight alongside the army. Then, a few weeks ago, a government airstrike killed more than a dozen tribesmen. Adelkhalin says it was no coincidence.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Why would the government target the tribesmen, he says, unless they wanted to help the militants. This is what you hear from most people from Zinjibar these days, that the government is too preoccupied with staying in power to fight the militants, or to help the victims. In fact, some say the government might even be complicit in the militant movement.

Hadija Salem Embrik is an anti-government activist who helped people displaced from Zinjibar find shelter in Aden. (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: The government did not do anything for the refugees. The youth movement organized itself, started to communicate with the businessmen and people from the private sector to help those refugees.

MCEVERS: Nearly everyone we met told stories of how the government has ignored them - how government troops stood down while the militants took over - and they now fear the militants are moving closer to the larger, port city of Aden.

Rumors are flying around the city that arms are flowing into the city. A suicide bomber recently killed a British citizen in the city. Activists take us to a neighborhood in the center of Aden where Islamists have used the language of the protest movement in graffiti that has shocked many people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The people want the rule of God.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ah, yeah.

MCEVERS: Uh-Huh. Gregory Johnsen is a Yemen expert at Princeton University. He says without the presence of journalists or aid workers in Zinjibar, it's difficult to know whether the government is complicit in the militant movement or not. Either way, he says the conspiracy theories ignore the real possibility of a wider militant takeover.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: I think it's a very worrying concern for not only people in Yemen who've been driven out of their homes, of course, for the United States and the Obama administration, which is very worried that any militants who are leaning to al-Qaida working there in Yemen might use any territory or any space they acquire to carry out more attacks against the West.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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