SANAA (Reuters) - Eight people were killed in fighting between Sunni Muslim Salafis and Shi'ite Muslim rebels in northern Yemen on Saturday, a local official said, the latest flare-up of sectarian tension in the impoverished state.
Shi'ite rebels known as Houthis have exploited a year of political upheaval in Yemen to effectively carve out their own state within a state in the rugged province of Saada, which lies along the border with Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis have fought regularly with Salafis attending a religious college in the area. They accuse Riyadh of smuggling weapons to the Salafis because the two follow a similar creed.
The official said the confrontation took place on the outskirts of Saada city, when four Salafi students ventured up to a checkpoint manned by the Houthis. Four people died on either side and each blamed the other for firing the first shot.
Salafis view Shi'ites as heretics.
Saudi Arabia briefly fought the Houthis in north Yemen after they grabbed Saudi territory in 2009.
The U.S. envoy to Yemen said earlier this year there were signs that Shi'ite Iran was becoming more active in Yemen, posing a threat to the country's security and stability. Iran denies interfering there.
Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, says Iran is fomenting unrest among Shi'ites in its east and in neighboring Bahrain.
Rebellion in the north is just one of a host of challenges facing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh after months of anti-government protests that paralyzed the Yemen government for most of 2011.
Apart from a looming humanitarian crisis, the south of the country is home to rising secessionist sentiment and a tenacious arm of al Qaeda, which has launched a string of deadly attacks on the army since Hadi took office.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Vicki Allen)