SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni Shi‘ite Houthi fighters and supporters of the Sunni Muslim party Islah clashed in central Yemen on Saturday, residents and local officials said, another sign of sectarian warfare in the violence-prone country that borders Saudi Arabia.
Saturday’s fighting in the town of Yareem in Ibb province came after 15 people were killed in fighting on Friday between Sunni tribesmen and Houthi rebels on the outskirts and in the city of Ibb, 150 km (90 miles) south of Sanaa.
Houthi fighters were attacking the home of an Islah official, Ali Bdeir, in Yareem, residents said. The attack came after the Houthis were ambushed at dawn in Yareem and four Houthis were killed
Eyewitnesses told Reuters dozens of bodies of fighters from both sides were strewn on the main street in Yareem. In a letter seen by Reuters, the police chief of Ibb province resigned after the Houthis entered Ibb.
“There are heavy clashes now between the Houthi fighters and the supporters of Islah. It’s a very scary situation,” a local Ibb official told Reuters.
The Houthis established themselves as powerbrokers in Yemen last month, capturing the capital, Sanaa, on Sept. 21. The weak administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi put up little resistance.
Clashes between Houthis, Sunni tribesmen and fighters from al Qaeda, who regard Shi‘ites as heretics, have since intensified across several provinces in Yemen, alarming neighboring oil-exporting giant Saudi Arabia.
Activists in Hodeidah told Reuters on Saturday that residents took to the streets of the city, the second-largest port in the Arabian peninsula after Aden, calling on the Houthis to leave.
The Houthis, who come from the northern highlands and champion the interests of the Zaydi community, which makes up a fifth of Yemen’s population of 25 million, extended their control to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah on Tuesday.
The conflict with the Houthis has also extended to clashes with al Qaeda fighters who view the group as pawns of Iran. Before its fight with the Shi‘ite group, al Qaeda was already battling the government, frequently attacking security officials and government targets.
Early on Saturday, suspected al Qaeda militants shot dead Saleh al-Subaihi, the head of the government-allied local militia in the southern province of Lahj, and two of his aides, a local official said.
Tribal leaders said Houthi fighters withdrew to the outskirts of Radda in Bayda province, an al Qaeda stronghold, on Saturday after an agreement with the tribes.
In Sanaa, dozens of armed Houthi demonstrators protested in front of the Saudi embassy on Saturday, calling for the release of a prominent Shi‘ite cleric who was sentenced to death by a Saudi court this week, a Reuters witness said.
The Houthi demonstrators, who were carrying AK-47 rifles, also chanted “Death to America, Death to Israel” slogans. Yemeni security and military forces blocked both sides of the street in front of the embassy and watched the demonstration.
A Saudi judge on Wednesday sentenced to death Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had called for greater rights for the kingdom’s Shi‘ites.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Larry King