Flights to Sanaa stopped as fighting in Yemen escalates
SANAA // Shiite rebels and Sunni militiamen battled for a second day on Friday in fighting that has killed at least 120 people, driven thousands from their homes and shut down the main airport.
The dead were predominantly fighters from either side and were killed over the past 24 hours, according to medical officials.
The fighting, which began early this week, had intensified on Thursday, prompting international airlines to suspend flights in and out of the nearby airport and state television to stop broadcasting after coming under fire. Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline said they cancelled all flights to Sanaa because of the security situation.
There were hopes on Friday that the fighting could end soon with negotiators who are part of UN-led mediation saying that the Houthis were close to signing a peace deal.
“Rebel chief Abdelmalek Al Houthi designated two of his deputies to sign a deal in Sanaa in the coming hours, or tomorrow,” one of the negotiators said in Houthi’s northern stronghold of Saada.
The rebels, known as Ansarullah, are demanding a new government, accusing the current one of corruption.
They also want a voice in the choice of ministers and access to the sea from their northern redoubt.
Details were not immediately available on the ceasefire agreement, which appeared to be the fruit of discussions UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar has had with Houthi since flying to Saada on Wednesday.
Government representatives also participated in those talks.
The fighting in and near the capital has raised fears of greater sectarian conflict, unseen for decades in Yemen.
Yemen has been chronically unstable for years. But its main fight has been by the government against Al Qaeda militants who operate in the south and the mountainous centre of the country.
In the past few months, however, the Houthis have become one of the country’s most powerful players. They surged from their stronghold in the north, taking a string of cities and have fought to the capital, Sanaa.
Their main opponent has been Sunni hardliners – militias and army units allied with the Islah party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen, or tribal fighters sympathetic with the Brotherhood or Al Qaeda. The government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi appears largely caught in the middle between the two forces.
After taking control of the Sanaa suburb of Shamlan this week, Houthi fighters on Thursday launched an assault on the Sunni hardliners’ stronghold, Iman University, which is seen as a breeding ground for militants.
On Friday, the Houthis attacked the nearby headquarters of state TV, trying to storm the building, which the night before they hit with mortars, witnesses said.
“Every minute, there is something rattling or bombing, either rocket-propelled grenades or machine guns. The wall hangings fell down. The house was shaking with every explosion,” Ammar Ahmed, who lives near the university, said.
Army units joined Islah gunmen in fighting the rebels.
Bloodied bodies lay in the streets next the charred vehicles in front of the university, said another resident of the area, Ahmed Ibrahim.
Houthis tried to take a hill overlooking the university but were driven back by artillery fire, witnesses said.
Fighting also spread to the Massbah district, where Houthis targeted house of Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, an ally of the Islamists who led the military against the Houthi rebellion in the north from 2004 to 2010.
The fighting is the latest chapter of Yemen’s turmoil. The country has long faced the threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is considered one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network.
Yemen has also faced a persistent separatist movement in the south, which was an independent nation until 1990. Across its territory, the country also has deep tribal divisions.
It went through political upheaval starting in 2011, when protests erupted against longtime autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh. After months of clinging to power, Mr Saleh was forced out, and Mr Hadi was brought in to replace him.
Still, Mr Saleh’s loyalists permeate the government and military and are accused of trying to undermine Mr Hadi.
Mr Hadi has been trying to lead wide-scale reforms to reshape and decentralise Yemen’s political system by creating six regions that would be given greater powers to satisfy the divisions in the country.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Published: September 20, 2014 04:00 AM