SANAA, Yemen – A spate of deadly drive-by shootings targeting Muslim clerics and preachers has sparked panic and fear in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, prompting some imams to quit 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, the conflict has pitted a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states against the country's Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen and its capital, Sanaa. The coalition is fighting to restore Yemen's internationally recognized President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.
The United Arab Emirates joined the war as a key 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 least 25 clerics, preachers, 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 slayings have stoked anger against the UAE in Aden. Recently, 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 supporters 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 clerics, scholars, and imams" of Aden and his office has warned that the killings are taking place hand-in-hand with forced replacements of clerics 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 attempts by terrorist elements and outlaws" against Yemen's legitimate government.
No group has claimed responsibility for the killings. Security authorities in Aden would only 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 list with 20 names of slain clerics 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 clerics, 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 elaborate, for fear 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 clerics were killed, he said.
"What is happening is terrifying," 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 seized his father, and found that he was taken to the headquarters of the so-called anti-terrorism force, one of several units 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 payments over the phone, including one just hours before his abduction. When the threats started, his father stopped going to the dawn 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, decried the officials' silence over the clerics' deaths, saying 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 scholars," he wrote. "What is the message?"
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.