October 19, 2014 / 5:28 PM / in 3 years

Yemen's Houthis dismantle Sanaa airport road camp, gunmen remain

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's Shi'ite Houthi group dismantled a protest camp blocking the country's main airport in Sanaa on Sunday, authorities said, but was keeping its fighters on the streets of the recently seized capital.

The dismantling of the encampment, which allowed traffic to move unobstructed between the airport and the capital for the first time in weeks, came as newly appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, Yemen's ambassador to the United Nations, flew back home to take up his post as part of an agreement aimed at stabilizing the conflict-prone country.

The Houthis captured Sanaa on Sept. 21 after weeks of anti-government protests centering on fuel price rises. The group signed a power-sharing agreement with other political parties soon afterwards, a deal that was sanctioned by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but this has not deterred them from pushing in to other parts of the country.

Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, the Houthi group was supposed to start dismantling the protest encampment and withdraw its fighters from the capital once a new prime minister had been appointed.

The Yemeni Defence Ministry's website said on Sunday that the encampment had indeed been dismantled.

"The airport road has been opened after the tents were removed yesterday (Saturday) in implementation of the partnership and peace agreement," the website said, quoting an official at the capital's municipality. "Life in neighborhoods of the airport road is back to normal."

But residents of Sanaa said Houthi fighters were still in control of the city, operating checkpoints and keeping guard outside key ministries, commercial districts and diplomatic missions.

EXPANDING INFLUENCE

The Houthis began expanding their influence in other parts of the country this week, risking confrontation with Sunni Muslim groups, including al Qaeda militants. The group comes from the northern highlands and claims to champion the interests of the Shi'ite Zaydi community, which makes up a fifth of Yemen's population of 25 million.

Houthi fighters last Tuesday were deployed to the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. Though they met little resistance at the time, on Saturday activists told Reuters that residents had taken to the streets calling on the Houthis to leave.

A statement distributed after the protests said residents of the coastal Tihama region "rejected the presence of armed militias" and vowed to resist the group.

Houthi fighters also clashed with supporters of the Sunni Muslim Islah party in central Yemen on Saturday, residents and local officials said, raising the specter of a wider sectarian confrontation in the country, which shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.

The fighting took place in the town of Yareem in Ibb province, and came after 15 people were killed the previous day in clashes between Sunni tribesmen and Houthi rebels in and around the provincial capital, which lies 150 km (90 miles) south of Sanaa.

Saturday's clashes erupted after Houthi fighters attacked the home of a local Islah official, Ali Bdeir, residents said. The Houthi raid came after four members of the group were killed in a dawn ambush in the town.

A truce appeared to be holding and residents said that local authorities were trying to get both sides to agree to withdraw their fighters from the city.

In recent weeks the group as also clashed with fighters from al Qaeda, who regard Shi'ites as heretics and the Houthis as pawns of Iran.

As well as fighting the Shi'ite group, al Qaeda has waged a long-standing campaign against the Yemeni state, frequently attacking security officials and government targets.

Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by Abigail Fielding-Smith

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