Renewed Yemen clashes kill at least seven and keep planes grounded

Mortar rounds slam into homes and a local hospital in the capital Saana, as the death toll rises to 22 civilians and at least 123 fighters.

A Yemeni supporter of the Shiite Houthi movement shouts anti-government slogans and brandishes a traditional dagger at a sit-in camp in the capital Sanaa on Saturday. Yahya Arhab / EPA
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SAANA // Fighting in Yemen’s capital pitting Shiite rebels against Sunni militiamen and army units killed at least four civilians and three fighters on Saturday and caused the suspension of international flights for a second day.

Mortar shells slammed into homes and a local hospital as the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, battled militias and troops allied with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah party. Officials said three civilians including a woman, were wounded in the shelling of the hospital.

The latest casualties raise the death toll since Thursday to 22 civilians and at least 123 fighters.

The fighting has shut shops, schools and the country’s main international gateway, raising fears that the capital could fall to the rebels, who are demanding economic and political reforms.

“The suspension of the flights of Arab and foreign countries is continuing,” an airport source said, while residents in areas near the airport said that air traffic had virtually ceased.

The only aircraft to touch down since Friday was a military plane bringing UN envoy Jamal Benomar back from the rebel stronghold of Saada.

Mr Benomar spent three days in the northern city trying to negotiate a ceasefire with rebel chief, Abdelmalek Al Houthi. He did not reach agreement but said the two sides were making progress.

“I have tried to narrow the gap between the two parties and we’ve agreed on a number of points that can serve as the basis of an accord,” Mr Benomar.

The Yemeni president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, on Saturday pressed for a political settlement brokered by Mr Benomar.

“The right choice is through the process taking place with Jamal Benomar,” Mr Hadi was quoted as saying by the official Saba news agency. He described the Houthi advance into Sanaa as “inexcusable”.

A source close to the mediation efforts said president Hadi would meet with politicians on Saturday to discuss suggestions from the Houthis on ending the conflict.

One Houthi rebel leader, Abdelmalik Al Ajri, said his group’s representatives could reach the capital from Saada later on Saturday or Sunday to sign a deal to end the crisis.

The fighting has raised fears of an all-out sectarian conflict in Yemen, which is in the midst of a UN-backed political transition after the long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from office in 2012. The impoverished country is already grappling with a powerful local Al Qaeda affiliate and an increasingly assertive separatist movement in the south.

Just under half of Yemen’s population is Shiite, but they mainly adhere to the Zaidi strain of Shiism, which is seen as very close to Sunni Islam. The two communities have long been intertwined in the political elite and military.

The Houthis waged a six-year rebellion until 2010 against Mr Saleh’s government. The following year the country was convulsed by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising, and Mr Saleh was eventually forced to step down in an agreement that allowed his loyalists to maintain considerable power.

In recent months the Houthis surged from their stronghold in the north, taking a string of cities and fighting their way to the outskirts of the capital, where they have held mass demonstrations. Their critics accuse them of being a proxy of Shiite powerhouse Iran and of seeking to seize power in Yemen, claims the movement denies.

The fighting on Saturday took place on the road to the international airport and near a major military base, the state television building, which winesses said was on fire, and on two university campuses, north and west of the capital. The fighting forced many families to flee their homes and trapped others.

* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters