SANAA, Yemen- A spate of deadly drive-by shootings targeting Muslim clerics and preachers has triggered panic and dread in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, inspiring some imams to discontinue and abandon their mosques while dozens have fled the country.
The killings have also brought attention to a rivalry that has emerged in Aden as yet another layer to Yemen’s complex civil war.
Since 2015, existing conflicts has pitted a Saudi-led alliance of mostly Arab countries against the country’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen and its capital, Sanaa. The coalition is opposing to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.
The United Arab Emirates joined the war as a major partner in the coalition, sending forces to southern Yemen and managing to carve out a zone of influence across the region. The UAE has set up heavily-armed militias in a challenge to forces loyal to Hadi, who has been in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia for most of the past two years.
In several instances, UAE-trained militiamen, some operating under the umbrella of the Southern Transitional Council — which many see as a secessionist force fighting for an independent Southern Yemen — have engaged in deadly clashes with Hadi’s forces. The UAE has also been linked to secret prisons where terror suspects are tortured and held without trial, a charge the Emiratis deny.
The Gulf Arab state also holds deep enmity toward Hadi’s top ally in the south, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen, known as the Islah party.
Many of the slain clerics belonged to the Islah party. In most cases, they were shot by gunmen while leaving their mosques after Friday prayers, or outside their homes.
A tally by The Associated Press shows that at the least 25 clergymen, evangelists, and religious scholars have been gunned down since 2016 in Aden and the southern provinces, with over 15 killed in the past six months alone.
The massacres have stoked indignation against the UAE in Aden. Lately, graffiti saying, “Down with the UAE occupation” surfaced in the streets. On Tuesday, a joint statement by 12 political parties and movements denounced the “evil hands behind the assassinations” of the clerics. It said those killed are all those in favour of Hadi’s government.
Minister of Religious Endowment Ahmed Attiya said the killings are “systematic” and that over 50 clerics have left Yemen so far, fleeing to countries such as Egypt and Jordan.
“If this continues, we will ask the clerics to stay home and stop going to mosques, ” he said from Riyadh.
Attiya has also appealed for an effort to “rescue the clergymen, scholars, and imams” of Aden and his office has warned that the killed are taking place hand-in-hand with forced replacements of clergymen affiliated with Islah.
Hadi’s government, which operates mostly out of exile with only a few ministers on the ground in Aden, has denounced the slayings as “desperate tries by terrorist elements and outlaws” against Yemen’s legitimate government.
No group has claimed responsibility for the killed. Security authorities in Aden was able to say that they are investigating and that they have rounded some suspects.
A top security official in Aden, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, accused the UAE of orchestrating the killings. A listing with 20 names of slain clergymen was provided by the ministry of religious endowment in Aden; the additional five names were compiled by the AP.
Ali al-Jilani, the cleric of Al-Qadirya Mosque in Aden, was the first to be killed, in January 2016. The following month, Abdel-Rahman al-Adani, one of Aden’s most prominent clergymen, was gunned down.
A cleric in Aden’s Mansoura district said he stopped going to his mosque after receiving death threats. He declined to give his name or elaborated, for dread of retribution.
“My friends advised me to stay away, ” he told the AP over the phone. Another mosque in Mansoura, the Al-Rimi Mosque, was shut down after two of its clergymen were killed, he said.
“What is happening is scaring, ” the cleric added.
Nidhal Bahourith, a cleric at Aden’s Al-Dhahibi Mosque, was taken by armed men last Thursday, sparking a protest rally in the city.
His son, Mohammed Bahourith, said he followed the vehicle with the men who had confiscated his father, and found that he was taken to the headquarters of the so-called anti-terrorism force, one of several divisions in Aden that answer only to the UAE ./
“They want to destroy Islah, humiliate it and bring the clerics to their knees, ” said Mohammed, adding that his 51 -year-old father had been receiving threats and demands for pays over the phone, including one just hours before his abduction. When the threats started, his father stopped going to the daybreak prayers, he said.
The Saudi-led coalition did not respond to AP requests for comment.
Fouad bin al-Sheikh, a former Yemeni minister for religious affairs, condemned the officials’ silence over the clerics’ demises, telling on his Facebook page that “not a week passes without hearing shocking news about the assassination of an imam or a preacher” in Aden.
“I don’t understand why the liquidation of the intellectuals, ” he wrote. “What is the message? “
Associated Press novelist Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.
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