SANAA (Reuters) - Al Qaeda militants made a rare public appearance in restive south Yemen on Monday, telling an anti-government rally that the group's war was with the United States and not the Yemeni army, residents said.
The West and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of the Yemeni government's focus on a Shi'ite rebellion in the north and rising secessionist sentiment in the south to spread its operations to the kingdom, the world's top oil exporter.
"Soldiers, you should know that there is no problem between us and you. The problem is between us and America and its lackeys," residents quoted one militant as telling hundreds of people gathered to protest against the killing of dozens of civilians in government raids aimed at al Qaeda last week.
Al Jazeera television showed footage of the militant addressing the crowd while an armed comrade stood by as a bodyguard. Both were unmasked.
An explosion killed three people during the protest, held at a suspected al Qaeda training camp bombed during Thursday's raids in southern Abyan province. A security official blamed al Qaeda for the blast, which some reports said may have been caused by unexploded munitions.
Yemen said on Thursday its security forces and warplanes had foiled a planned series of suicide bombings by attacking targets including the al Qaeda training center.
About 30 al Qaeda militants were killed and 17 arrested in Abyan and in Arhab, northeast of the capital Sanaa, it said.
Protesters, including supporters of the Southern Movement which says south Yemen has been marginalized and wants it to secede, say about 50 people were killed, most of them civilians.
The New York Times said on Saturday that the United States gave military hardware, intelligence and other support to Yemeni forces to carry out the raids.
Saudi and Yemeni militants said earlier this year they were uniting under the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, using Yemen as their base.
Besides fighting al Qaeda militants and separatist unrest Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, is fighting a war against Shi'ite rebels in the north.
Political analysts say such conflicts, together with falling oil income, water shortages and a humanitarian crisis, add to instability in a region that includes oil superpower Saudi Arabia and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; additional reporting by Mohammed Mokhashaf in Aden; writing by Firouz Sedarat; editing by Tim Pearce)