Al-Qaeda militants have been trying to deter Houthi advancement south of Sana'a
Fierce clashes erupted on Tuesday between al-Qaeda militant groups and Shiite Houthi gunmen in the central Yemeni city of Rada’a, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area that has been a flashpoint of frequent battles between the two groups.
“The clashes, which remain ongoing, have forced many shop owners to close their businesses, as several explosions were heard across the city since the early morning,” one eyewitness told Anadolu Agency.
The fighting continued as news emerged that Houthi rebels have taken complete control of Hajja, a border governorate with Saudi Arabia, apparent with no resistance, according to an Al Arabiya report.
It is unclear yet whether the recent clashes have left any casualties.
The Houthi fighters also received reinforcements in Rada’a, including armoured vehicles, eyewitnesses said on Tuesday.
Violent confrontations have been raging in Rada’a between Houthis and al-Qaeda for several days now with casualties on both sides. Sources estimated that at least 60 people had been killed.
A suicide bomber killed 15 people on Monday, including children, when he detonated his explosives-laden car near a rebel checkpoint in Rada’a, witnesses and a tribal source said.
Twenty rebels were killed in another car bombing that targeted a building where they had gathered and in subsequent clashes, tribal and security sources told AFP, adding that 12 rebels were also captured by al-Qaeda militants.
The town was rocked by powerful explosions, with rocket-propelled grenades and artillery used by both sides in several hours of fighting, security officials said.
Ten more rebels were killed during clashes on Monday in the Anas district of Dhamar, a Shiite-populated province taken last week by the rebels, said medic and tribal sources.
Meanwhile, 15 fighters, including al-Qaeda militants and Sunni tribesmen, were killed in the Rada’a clashes, tribal sources said.
Houthi rebels have been facing fierce resistance from al-Qaeda fighters and tribesmen, as they seek to expand their areas of control after seizing the capital Sana’a on 21 September and the Red Sea port city of Hudayda.
Since then, Houthis have been trying to extend their control to other Yemeni provinces. The apparent capture of Hajja governorate on Tuesday was a clear milestone.
Yet the Houthis have also remained in control of Sana’a even as they signed an agreement with the Yemeni president to end their country’s political stalemate a few hours earlier.
President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi’s weak Sunni-led central government has failed to stop the Houthi rebels, despite a UN-brokered peace deal that was supposed to see them withdraw from the capital.
Yemen has been suffering turmoil since a popular uprising that erupted in 2011 toppled longstanding president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012.
With a central government, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch - and Sunni tribesmen have instead fought to halt the rebel advance, leaving dozens dead including 47 Houthi supporters in a suicide bombing in Sana’a this month.
Al-Qaeda militants attacked rebel positions northeast of Rada’a and along a road connecting the town in Baida province to neighbouring Dhamar.
Fighters backed by tribesmen also recaptured the town of Udain, in southwestern Ibb province, which they had briefly overran last week in response to the rebels’ advance, a tribal source said.
They then moved towards nearby Ibb city, triggering heavy clashes late Monday with the rebels.
The fighting has raised fears of Yemen collapsing into a failed state.
Because Houthi rebels faced no resistance when they took control of Sana’a last month and have refused to leave, despite apparently agreeing to the naming of a new prime minister under the UN deal, tribesmen have accused government forces in the area of collaborating with the rebels in advance.
“Tribesmen are fighting alongside al-Qaeda because the army is supporting the Houthis,” a tribal chief said.
On Sunday, negotiations hosted by provincial governor Yehya al-Iryani to convince all fighters to withdraw from Ibb city “failed”, a mediator told AFP.
“The Houthis insisted on deploying their fighters alongside security forces in Ibb… to fight al-Qaeda and prevent it from taking over the province.”
The Shiite rebels have traditionally been concentrated in the northern parts of Yemen, on the border with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.
Yemeni authorities and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of backing the Houthis in a similar fashion to its support for Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah, while Gulf Arab states have warned that instability in Yemen is threatening regional security.
Meanwhile, the UN is reportedly preparing to impose sanctions on five high-profile Yemenis including the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, as well as three Houthi leaders singled out for derailing Yemen’s democratic transition which the UN is overseeing.