Fighting in the mountains of northwestern Yemen intensified Sunday as the government announced that it had killed more than 100 Shiite Muslim rebels, and humanitarian organizations voiced alarm over an estimated 100,000 people who have fled their homes since the conflict flared nearly two weeks ago.
The rebels rejected a cease-fire offer from the Sunni Muslim-dominated government at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan on Friday. The region has since echoed with the fire of artillery, tanks and aircraft as Yemeni forces moved to crush a five-year rebellion led by Shiite militant Abdul Malik Houthi in Saada and Amran provinces.
The fighting near the border with Saudi Arabia was another spasm across an increasingly unstable Yemen, a poor yet strategic country on the Gulf of Aden. U.S. officials are concerned that the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is engulfed in conflicts that also include a separatist insurgency in the south and growing numbers of Al Qaeda fighters using the nation as a base to launch attacks across the Middle East.
The Shiite revolt in the northwest is unfolding amid Yemen’s tricky mix of tribes and clans, and larger regional animosities between Iran’s Shiite-led government and its Sunni Arab neighbors. Yemen has intimated that Iran is funneling weapons and money to the rebels. Iran’s news media have alleged that Saudi forces have joined Yemeni troops in putting down the rebellion. The Saudis, who worry the unrest may seep across their border, have only publicly acknowledged that the kingdom is consulting with Yemen about the violence.
Yemeni officials have denied any joint military operations with the Saudis. Yemen’s news agency reported Sunday that Iran’s allegations had “no credibility,” noting “this puts Iran in a suspicious position that raises many questions about the possible ulterior motives it pursues in reporting such information.”
In its cease-fire offer, the government demanded that the rebels withdraw from mountain strongholds, return weapons seized from the army and provide details about the kidnappings of at least seven foreigners, including two Germans and a South Korean who were found dead in June. The rebels have denied involvement in the hostage-taking.
Yemeni forces said they killed two rebel leaders identified as Saleh Jarman and Mohsen Hadi Qaoud. The deaths could not be independently confirmed.
“There has been a discovery of 100 bodies belonging to Houthi rebels on the sides of the roads outside Haraf Sufyan,” according to a government statement. “It seems these are members who had attempted to escape from the fierce fighting in Sufyan city and were chased down.”
Yemen’s news agency reported that Education Minister Abdul-Salam Jawfi met with officials from UNICEF and the U.N. agency for refugees. The agency said international medical and humanitarian organizations have sent teams to “the restive province but worsening security there has limited their effectiveness. The fighting has shown no signs of letting up.”
The U.N. is trying its “best to reach the most vulnerable children and women who have fled their homes empty-handed in a state of panic,” a UNICEF statement said.
The government alleges that the Shiites, who want a return to the clerical rule abolished in the national revolution of 1962, have taken over schools and killed more than 330 people over the last year. The rebels assert that they have been a persecuted minority.
Shiites make up about 42% of Yemen’s 23 million people.