Yemen's Houthis block airport road, army bombs their rebel positions in north

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 07, 2014 10:10 AM

SANAA (Reuters) - Protesters from the Shi'ite Muslim group the Houthis cut off the road between the capital and Yemen's main airport while warplanes bombed Houthi rebel positions in the north on Sunday in a sharp escalation of weeks of tensions with the government.

Tens of thousands of Houthis, a religious insurgent group from northwest Yemen, have spent weeks camping around Sanaa in protest at the government against whom they fought a decade-long on-off war.

On Sunday, they set up tents blocking the main road to Sanaa's airport and the interior ministry, while planes pounded positions of armed Houthi rebels in al-Jawf province, killing 13 of them, according to government sources.

Intermittent fighting has been going on for months between the Houthis, who carry the name of their leaders' clan, and Sanaa-backed tribes in Yemen's north, but the government had paused air strikes to give truce talks a chance.

The group, which belongs to the small Zaidi branch of Shi'ite Islam, first launched their uprising against the central government in Sunni-dominated Yemen in 2004 and fought several bitter wars against it in the years that followed.

Attempts to involve the Houthis in mainstream politics in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the ousting of long-time Yemeni ruler and arch enemy of the Houthis, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have failed, and the group has returned to its more radical and isolationist ways.

The Houthis, who say they want to topple the government, have centered their current protest on a call for recent fuel price rises to be reversed, though they rejected a broad compromise proposal on fuel subsidies by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi last week.

The United States and Sunni Muslim neighbor Saudi Arabia fear for the stability of Yemen, which is fighting a deadly insurgency with al Qaeda militants and contains many of the same sectarian rifts that have set ablaze other Arab countries.

Iran denied a suggestion by Hadi that it was helping incite the turmoil, saying it "backs peaceful attempts to realize legislative aspirations...(and) participation of all groups in the political process," its foreign ministry said on Sunday.

The Yemeni government and Iran's rivals among the Sunni Gulf states have long accused the majority-Shi'ite powerhouse of interfering in Yemen, something Iran and the Houthis deny.

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"Some do not wish security, stability and an exit to the crisis for Sanaa, but want to light a fire like in Damascus, Baghdad and Libya," Hadi told tribal leaders on Saturday.

Hadi called upon Iran to "exercise reason and logic in dealing with the Yemeni people, and they must deal with the people and not just one class, group or sect," according to the state news agency Saba.

The president wants the Houthis to join a unity government and announced fuel prices cuts of about 30 percent last week.

Rebels rejected the compromise plan and the renewed subsidy as "meaningless," and a national consensus government dismissed last weeks remains in place pending progress in the truce talks.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari, Mehrdad Balali and Noah Browning, Editing by William Maclean and Raissa Kasolowsky)