SANAA (Reuters) - Twenty-two people were killed in fighting between Shi‘ite Muslim rebels and government-allied tribesmen in northern Yemen on Monday and Tuesday, tribal and local sources told Reuters.
The fighting in al-Jawf province, northeast of the capital Sanaa, is further destabilizing a country struggling to overcome a range of threats including a secessionist movement in its south and the spread of an al Qaeda insurgency.
The stability of Yemen is a priority for the United States and its Gulf Arab allies because of its strategic position next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and shipping lanes which run through the Gulf of Aden.
An upsurge in the fighting between the Houthi Shi‘ite gunmen and Sunni tribesmen this month followed weeks of anti-government demonstrations by Houthi activists in Sanaa.
The Houthis, who follow the small Zaidi branch of Shi‘ite Islam, have been embroiled in a decade-old conflict with the central government in Sunni-dominated Sanaa, fighting for more territory and control in the north.
The Houthi protesters say they are taking a stand against government corruption in the poor southern Arabian country. Critics say the Houthis are trying to grab power and carve out a semi-independent state for themselves in the north - something they deny.
The sources told Reuters the dead included 15 Houthi fighters, while the Houthis killed two sons of a tribal leader in addition to five other people.
Following the clashes Mohamed Abdel Salam, the spokesman for the Houthis claimed victory for the group in taking over large areas of al-Jawf from the tribesmen who are aligned with the government.
The tribesmen said that they had performed a “tactical withdrawal” to allow the Yemeni army to bomb the Houthis and the conflict will continue.
Residents in the northeastern suburb of Sanaa told Reuters the Houthi fighters clashed with government security forces who were sent to restore order, which forced many living in the area to flee.
The residents added that the Houthis militants took control of the village in al-Jawf following clashes with tribesmen which killed a total of seven people from both sides.
In a separate incident southwest of Sanaa on Tuesday, four armed tribesmen were killed by Houthi fighters, said sources.
On Monday, the Houthis said that they had suspended their participation in negotiations with the Yemeni government about a solution to their grievances because of what they termed “foreign interventions” in the course of the discussions.
The talks aim to end a crisis that has seen weeks of sometimes bloody protests in Sanaa, where Houthi protesters have been blocking the main road to Sanaa’s airport and holding sit-ins at ministries to try to oust the government and restore fuel subsidies cut by the state in July as part of economic reforms.
Reporting by Mohamed Ghobari, Writing by Amena Bakr, Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens