SANAA, Yemen — At least 2,000 displaced Yemenis returned home Friday to a restive area in the country's south that has been under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants for more than seven months.
Their return to Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan province, provides some of the first civilian views of the Islamic rule the militants have begun to set up in the poorly governed hinterlands of the Arab world's poorest country: A zone where armed men from a various Arab countries move about in new Toyota trucks and vow to implement strict Islamic law.
The militants have taken advantage of the security collapse across Yemen during 11 months of mass protests calling for the ouster of longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A wily politician who has ruled for 33 years, Saleh is due to transfer power later this month to his vice president under a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Persian Gulf neighbors.
The U.S. has long considered Saleh a necessary ally in combatting Yemen's active al-Qaida branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organization's most dangerous franchises.
Militants began seizing territory in Yemen's southern Abyan province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May. They call their organization Ansar al-Shariah, or Partisans of Shariah, which is linked to al-Qaida.
Yemeni security forces have been trying unsuccessfully to push them out since then in fierce fighting that has caused regular casualties on both sides. The conflict has forced tens of thousands of civilians from Zinjibar and the surrounding area to flee, many to the port city of Aden.
Some made their first efforts to return last month, staging two marches from Aden. Both times, militants turned them back, saying the city wasn't safe. But Saturday's return was coordinated with the militant group. More than 2,000 residents entered Zinjibar, where the militants welcomed them with carbonated drinks and cookies then slaughtered cows for dinner, said resident Abdel-Hakim al-Marqashi.
Before dinner, however, all gathered in the city center for an address by a man called "Abu Hamza," who was introduced as the prince of what the militants declared a new Islamic state.
Al-Marqashi said Abu Hamza told the crowd that they were now "safe and secure," and that the leaders of the Islamic emirate will work to restore services like water and electricity and impose justice according to Islamic Shariah law.
Abu Hamza said the group had set up an Islamic court to deal with crimes and problems between residents.
Residents were shocked by the destruction left by months of clashes between militants and the army.
"Zinjibar has been turned into a city of ghosts," said Mohammed al-Marfadi. He said the town, once home to more than 100,000 people, was virtually empty except for the armed men cruising the streets in pickup trucks and motorcycles with mounted machine guns.
Most of the city center is in ruins, he said, and all government offices have been destroyed or burned. Charred cars litter the streets, while some roads are pockmarked with craters from artillery strikes.
Militants manning anti-aircraft guns occupied military posts throughout the city, residents said.
A regional army commander, Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Somali, said the residents have the right to return home, but cautioned that "the citizens must not allow al-Qaida to use them as human shields or to use their homes to fire at army positions."
"Should this happen, we'll respond with all force," he told reporters Saturday in Aden.
The returning residents expressed mixed feelings about the militants now in control of Zinjibar.
"Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida are not atrocious beings from some other planet," said Wagdi al-Shabi. "We found them to be people like us, of flesh and blood. What makes them better is their belief and their jihad for the victory of Islam and to help the less fortunate."
But another resident, Hussein Qadri, said bearded men now run the ruined city like a military camp.
"If the situation is that scary during the day, imagine what it will be like at night," he said. Qadri was among the few hundred residents who left the city before nightfall.
The nearby town of Jaar, which the same militant group has controlled for the past nine months, may provide the best idea of what lies ahead for Zinjibar.
Security has returned to Jaar and shops and coffee houses are open, said Jameel Rawih, who visited the town Saturday. The militants oversee the marketplace and ensure that women cover their faces in public and that men, too, dress modestly.
Strict Islamic law is firmly imposed. Town residents say 16 people in Jaar and the surrounding area have had their hands cut off after being convicted of stealing. Four have been executed, either for murder or for spying for the Yemeni army.