SANAA (Reuters) - At least 22 people were killed in clashes between Shi'ite Muslim rebels and fighters from a Sunni Islamist group in a province under rebel control in rugged northern Yemen, tribal sources said Thursday.
A source close to the Shi'ite rebels known as Houthis said fighters from a Sunni group known as the Salafi attacked the rebels overnight in Hajja and in the Kataf area of Saada province, an area that has seen intense sectarian fighting in recent months.
"We blocked the attack in under an hour and 13 people died in Hajja and nine in Kataf," said the Houthi source.
The Salafi fighters are followers of a Sunni creed akin to Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi school of Islam.
The Houthis, who draw their name from a tribal leader, had fought government forces for years until an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh last year gave them free rein in Saada province, which borders the world's number one oil-exporter Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom, a key regional U.S. ally, briefly fought the Houthis in Saada after they seized Saudi territory in 2009.
Political upheaval over Saleh's fate has severely weakened central government control over swathes of Yemen, allowing some groups to seize whole provinces including Saada.
"The whole governorate (Saada) is controlled by Houthis, we only have to deal with one party," the International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC) head of operations for the Near and Middle East, Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, said in an interview.
Saleh left Sanaa for medical treatment in the United States Sunday, saying in a parting speech that he would return to Yemen, which was paralyzed for most of 2011 by protests against his 33-year rule.
Despite his absence, many fear he and his associates will continue to hold sway over the impoverished country.
Yemeni air force officers went on strike for a fifth day on Thursday, demanding the resignation of their commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, a half-brother of Saleh.
Soldiers who defected from Saleh's forces and joined those calling for his overthrow said government forces had kidnapped two senior air force officers in the coastal city of Hudaida for supporting the strike.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Roger Atwood)