30 more die in new fighting in Yemen

As clashes continue with Houthi rebels in the north, al Qa'eda is blamed for machine-gun and artillery attack on soldiers in the south.

SANA'A //At least 30 more people died in fighting across Yemen yesterday as Houthis in the north and militants in the south clashed with security forces. A day after the government accused al Houthis of ambushing and killing a tribal chieftain, his son and four bodyguards in the northern province of Sa'ada, at least 26 people were dead after Houthis fought with soldiers and al Aziz, a government-backed tribe, in Harf Sufian, 100km north of Sana'a.

Those clashes raised the death toll in the north to at least 56 in the past four days and marked the deadliest day of fighting in the region since a ceasefire in February after a five-year conflict. In the southern province of Shabwa, five soldiers were killed and another wounded in a suspected al Qa'eda ambush in Attaq. The ministry of defence said a routine patrol was attacked with machine gun and artillery fire.

In the north, the rebels denied on Wednesday that they had ambushed the convoy of Sheikh Zaidan al Maknaee, although they admitted that he was killed in a confrontation with their members. While tribal mediators are trying to contain the deteriorating security situation, local sources say army troopers have been deployed to al Zalaa area and that intensified clashes have spread to other areas, including al Samsarah and al Labada.

The escalation in the north comes after Sana'a and Doha announced last week the revival of the peace agreement brokered in 2008 by Qatar, following a short visit to Sana'a last week by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Qatari emir. The north of the country, mainly Sa'ada, 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. Thousands of people were killed and wounded in the fighting and about 250,000 displaced, according to the UN.

Mahmud Taha, a journalist based in Amran, attributed the escalation in violence in the north to the government's failure to provide genuine solutions to the Houthi problem. "Throughout the waves of clashes, the government messed up and used the tribes to support it against the Houthis, which allowed many groups to flourish by profiting from the war and what is happening now is a consequence of this policy," Mr Taha said.

He also said that the peace conditions presented by the government, and even by Qatar, have not addressed the roots of the Houthi insurgency. "There have not been any genuine solutions to the problem; they need to sit down with the Houthis and address their demands including the release of their detainees," Mr Taha said. The government accuses the rebels, who belong to the Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shiite 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. The ministry of defence said the attack in Shabwa carried "fingerprints of al Qa'eda" and that police are hunting down suspects. It would be the third in five weeks by Yemen's al Qa'eda affiliate, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Local sources said the attackers looted all the weapons on the vehicle and ran away.

The province of Shabwa is believed to be a hideout for al Qa'eda militants including the US-born radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who is accused by the US government of playing a part in the failed terrorist Christmas Day attempt to take down a Detroit-bound passenger aircraft. The cleric also exchanged e-mails with Major Nidal Hasan, a US army psychiatrist accused of opening fire on colleagues at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13.

Yemen, the ancestral homeland of the al Qa'eda leader, Osama bin Laden, and the impoverished nation has witnessed repeated attacks claimed by the jihadists on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil facilities. Yemen's government has intensified its operations against AQAP since the attempted Christmas Day bombing of the US-bound airliner, after details emerged that the attacker was apparently trained and supplied by the group. AQAP was created from the merger of the organisation's wings in Yemen and Saudi Arabia in early 2009.

@Email:malqadhi@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse