Yemen truce under threat as fighting flares again

Appeal for calm after Houthi rebels are accused of killing tribal chieftain, his son and four bodyguards in ambush on convoy with 30 dead in two days of violence.

SANA'A // A chieftain, his son and four bodyguards are the latest to die in fighting between the al Houthi rebels of northern Yemen and tribes loyal to the government that threatens a fragile ceasefire in the country's restive north.

Local sources say 30 people have been killed in two days of recurring skirmishes. The rebels denied yesterday that they had ambushed the convoy of Sheikh Zaidan al Maknaee on Tuesday, although they admitted that he was killed in a confrontation with their members. Yemen's top security agency, the Supreme Security Committee, accused the Houthis of carrying out the attack in Munabih district in the northern province of Sa'ada.

The committee said the "criminal act" coincided with other breaches of the ceasefire by the rebels in Sa'ada and in Harf Sufian in the neighbouring province of Amran. "All breaches exposed the group's insistence on aborting the peace efforts and inflaming the situation," the committee said, holding the Houthis responsible for violation of the peace agreement. Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the rebels, said the six men were killed in a shootout with the Houthis and not an ambush. He accused the security committee of misleading public opinion.

"The authorities should behave in a responsible way and not provide any support to any side. Supporting any tribal fight to generate tribal feuds will not serve any party but will increase the suffering of the people and undermine the power of the local authority," Mr Abdulsalam said. The north of the country, mainly Sa'ada province, has endured six rounds of fighting since an on-and-off war erupted in 2004. The last round lasted until a truce was brokered in February.

Under the government's conditions for the truce, the Houthis would have to withdraw from official buildings and abandon military posts they had seized; reopen roads; return weapons seized from security services; free all military and civilian prisoners; respect the law and the constitution; and pledge not to attack Saudi Arabia, which was drawn into the fight with the rebels last year. According to local sources, 10 Houthis and 20 tribesmen were killed and dozens wounded in fierce clashes over the past two days in Harf Sufian among the followers of the member of parliament Sagheer Aziz, other MPs, tribal sheikhs, and the Houthis.

Mhamud Taha, a journalist based in Amran, said a group of Houthi fighters continue to besiege Mr Aziz's house and a nearby building housing his fighters. However, the rebels denied in a statement on Tuesday that they are fighting tribesmen. They said they have been clashing with the army. They expressed support for the revival of a peace agreement that was brokered in 2008 by Qatar, following a short visit to Sana'a last week by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the Qatari emir.

Sana'a and Doha announced last week the revival of the peace agreement. Meanwhile, dozens of MPs are continuing a sit-in at the parliament premises that began on Tuesday in protest against the unstable security situation in the north and the increasing attacks by rebels against local tribesmen. Sheikh Othman Mujali, a prominent tribal chief and MP from Sa'ada, said yesterday the parliamentary bloc of Sa'ada had decided to suspend its membership in the parliament, objecting to the revival of the Doha peace agreement.

"The return to the Doha peace agreement has put the people of Sa'ada under the mercy of the Houthis while the state has not done its job in protecting the lives of the people in Sa'ada from the attacks of the Houthis," Mr Mujali said in a speech at the parliament on Tuesday on behalf of the Sa'ada MPs. "The Houthis seem to fight an organised battle, launching attacks against the tribes and besieging others with the objective of suppressing the tribes and the sheikhs who stood by the government during the last confrontations," Mr Mujali said.

The Sa'ada parliamentarians said in their statement the Houthis continue to kill the sheikhs who backed the government during its battle against the rebels, who are now seizing a time of peace to settle their accounts with the tribes. The protesters also demanded the government end the Houthi blockade (BLOCKADE?)on their colleague, Sagheer Aziz. The government accuses the rebels, who belong to the Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, of fomenting sectarian strife and of using arms in an attempt to restore the Zaidi imamate, which was overthrown in a 1962 revolution.

The Houthis, however, complain of socioeconomic and religious discrimination at the hands of the government. Thousands of people have been killed and wounded and about 250,000 were displaced, according to the UN, since the fight first erupted in 2004.