Yemen hits rebels after rejecting ceasefire

The offer is rejected by Sana'a as the group fails to promise an end to attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Yemen rejected a ceasefire offer from the leader of the beleaguered Houthi insurgency yesterday, then launched an attack on the rebels that left at least 20 dead. Intense fighting was reported in the northern provinces of Malahidh and Sa'ada, battlegrounds in the government's six-year struggle to put down a resilient Shiite rebellion. Qaed Abu Malik, a prominent group leader who had helped train insurgents, was killed in the attacks, state media claimed.

Abdul-Malik al Houthi, the leader of the rebels, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam who have decried government neglect for years, announced on Saturday that he was prepared to accept government-mandated conditions for a ceasefire - if Sana'a would halt its attacks. The Houthi rebellion, along with growing secessionist sentiment in the south and al Qa'eda's rising presence throughout Yemeni territory, have stoked concerns of Yemen unravelling into a failed state.

About 250,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the north, and officials from UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said on Friday that their plight was worsening. "This represents a more than doubling of the number displaced as of August 2009 when the latest round of fighting erupted," said Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman. Initially, Yemeni officials firmly rejected Mr al Houthi's offer, saying that the Houthis had only accepted five of the government's six conditions for peace.

The sixth is a promise to cease attacks on Saudi Arabia, whose forces became embroiled in the conflict after coming under rebel fire during a cross-border raid in November. Saudi forces continued to meet resistance from Houthi rebels yesterday, despite the kingdom's insistence last week that they had been put down. "The Houthi offer is rejected as it does not vow to end attacks on Saudi Arabia and because it sets as a condition an end to military operations first" by the government, a government official told the Reuters news agency.

Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive officer of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a Dubai-based security-military research organisation, said Yemen's seemingly heavy-handed reaction to the entreaty was essentially a tactic to both physically and psychologically defeat its increasingly enfeebled enemy. "This is a natural reaction when you have one side feeling that they have broken the other side," he said.

"The Yemen government wants this to end with a clear-cut victory, a surrender," he said. "And they don't want to let it be perceived by the people of Yemen that this war has ended with no victory for any side, that they just agreed to another ceasefire." It was still too early to determine if recent events marked the end of the rebellion, he said. But the Houthis "have clearly bitten off more than they can chew, especially when they opened the front on the Saudis.

The Saudi response was overwhelming, much more than the Houthis expected." Even so, later in the day, Yemeni officials appeared to be toning down their response. Yemen's Supreme National Defence Council announced that government forces were ready for a truce if Houthi rebels agreed to the sixth condition. "If the Houthi [rebels] agree to start implementing the six points - the government does not see a problem in stopping military operations," the defence council said in a statement.

The developments come as the US state department's counterterrorism chief was visiting Yemen yesterday, state media reported, a sign of Washington's increased concern over al Qa'eda's presence in the country. An interior ministry spokesman said on Saturday that a suspected al Qa'eda member who was preparing to carry out an attack on a south-eastern port had been detained by security forces. The suspect, Saleh Abd al Habib Saleh al Shaush, was stopped at a roadblock, the spokesman said. "He was riding a motorbike that was carrying two bombs and he was also wearing an explosives belt."

Although the exact target was unknown, the spokesman said, it was thought to be a major facility in Mukalla, which is the main port for and largest city in the eastern Hadramawt region. Last week, western governments met in Britain to pledge support for Yemen in part to fight growing Islamic militancy on its soil. If anything, Mr Kahwaji said in Dubai, heightened concern about Islamic radicalism rooting itself in Yemen had deprived what little support there was for the Houthi rebellion.

"I haven't seen much sympathy for their cause," he said. "There is growing belief out there that they are the stooges of the Iranians, that they are fighting a proxy war. Now, we hear international officials, like those from the US, that there isn't much evidence supporting this. "But, nevertheless, there's a lot being said about it, and there's a lot of discussion and questioning about what exactly the real motivation of the Houthis is."