Nearly 200 people, among them 15 foreigners, have been killed in clashes over the past few weeks between an ultraconservative Islamist group and former Shiite rebels in northern Yemen, a military official and the leader of the Islamist faction said Wednesday. In Moscow, Russia's Foreign Minister said four Russian citizens were among those killed.
The tension between the Salafi Islamists, who are Sunni, and the former Hawthi rebels, who are Shiite, escalated just as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed in late November a U.S.-backed proposal crafted by powerful Gulf Arab neighbors, under which he transfers power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. He agreed to step down after a 10-month uprising against his 33-year authoritarian rule.
The Hawthis fought a bloody and costly six-year war with Saleh's government in northern Saada province, along the Saudi border, until a cease-fire was reached early last year.
Salafi spokesman Surour al-Wadee said 71 Salafi fighters, among them an American and French, Russian, Algerian, Malaysian, Somalian, and Libyan citizens, have been killed in the clashes. A Yemeni military officials said more than 120 Hawthis have been killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Many of the foreigners were studying in the Salafi Dar al-Hadith school in Saada, which has attracted students from around the world. It was set up more than 20 years ago as a learning center to counter Shiite Islam in the area. Its funds often flow from Yemen's neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia.
Salafism is a particularly hardline branch of Islam. Some Salafis follow a militant ideology similar to al-Qaida's, but the terror network operates separately. Salafi preachers in Saada have used the pulpit to argue that the killing of Hawthi Shiites is an Islamic duty.
During Yemen's uprising, security has unraveled and al-Qaida and other Islamist militants have tried to exploit the vacuum to gain a firmer foothold in the impoverished country. The al-Qaida branch in Yemen is one of the most active in the world.
In the months leading up to Saleh's signing of the agreement to give up power, security forces appeared to have turned a blind eye to Salafis arming themselves and amassing in greater numbers in Saada province. The Saudi government pressures Saleh to step down as of the group of Gulf states that formulated the plan for him to go.
On Tuesday, the Hawthis and Salafis agreed to a cease-fire brokered by opposition tribesmen, politicians and religious figures. It collapsed less than 24 hours later in part of Saada. According to al-Wadee, eight Hawthis and two Salafi fighters were killed on Wednesday.
Al-Qaida fighters have not attempted a cease-fire with Hawthi Shiites. Instead, leading al-Qaida figures in Yemen have reportedly called on fighters in recent weeks to fight the Shiites.
Russia tracks its citizens who travel abroad for training in Muslim seminaries. The Russian Embassy in Yemen counted 36 Russian citizens living in Saada _ students at Dar al-Hadith school for Islamic studies and their families.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Russian and Yemeni authorities are working to evacuate the remaining Russian citizens from the area.
The Russian Embassy said the Russian students are at Dar al-Hadith illegally, having bypassed regulations for leaving Russia.
Russia has millions of Muslim citizens, notably in the Caucasus republics that have been plagued by insurgent violence.
Tired of widespread poverty and a government perceived as corrupt and abusive, many Muslims from the Caucasus have traveled to the Middle East and South Asia to study with radical Islamic leaders who challenge the Kremlin-backed Muslim clerics at home.
In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on Russia's Muslim leaders to join forces in an effort to keep young Muslims in Russia and quell recruitment by extremist groups abroad. In May, Alexander Khloponin, Medvedev's envoy to the Caucaus region, said authorities were planning to closely monitor young people who go abroad to study Islam.
Javed reported from Moscow.