Sectarian fighting has reignited between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Islamists in northern Yemen, shortly after a ceasefire allowed the evacuation of the critically wounded, both sides said Tuesday.
The Houthis have been battling Yemen’s central government for nearly a decade, but the outbreak of fighting with Sunni militants has amplified the sectarian dimension of the conflict in the remote northern Saada province, which has long been virtually inaccessible to reporters.
“The ceasefire collapsed after few hours,” Houthi spokesman Ali al-Bakheeti told AFP.
He accused foreign Salafist extremists, allegedly based in the village of Dammaj, of violating the truce announced on Monday by the UN special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar.
A spokesman for the Salafists in Dammaj accused the Shiite rebels of violating the ceasefire.
“The truce lasted only two hours, due to the Houthis’ intransigence,” Sourur al-Wadii said by telephone from Dammaj.
A Red Cross convoy entered the village -- where the Islamists are besieged by the Houthis - on Monday and the aid group said its teams had evacuated 23 critically wounded people.
“There are still more wounded people in need of treatment, and we hope to be able to come back for them,” the International Committee of the Red Cross’s director in Yemen, Cedric Schweizer, said in a statement.
Tribal sources said at least 11 people were killed in fighting last week, but Sunni Islamists put the death toll at around 50.
The fighting with mortar and rocket fire was concentrated around the Mazraa mosque and a Koranic school held by the Islamists in Dammaj and surrounded by rebels.
Benomar said on Monday he hoped the ceasefire would last, warning the conflict “threatens the security of Yemen.”
“Large groups of gunmen are being mobilized from different areas. This would have serious security implications,” he said.
A statement by the Houthi rebels on Saturday accused Sunni extremists of having “transformed the centre of Dammaj into a real barracks for thousands of armed foreigners”.
The Houthis, who are members of the Zaidi Shiite community, rose up in 2004 against ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government, accusing it of marginalizing them politically and economically.