SANA'A // Yemen's president yesterday accused northern rebels of killing innocent civilians and using "human shields", in an address carried in state media, as the army announced it had killed 140 rebels after the insurgents launched an assault on the government's mansion in Sa'ada. "The army killed more than 140 rebels after thwarting an attempted attack on Sa'ada," a military official said, describing the fighting as "the fiercest" since the start of the military offensive on August 11.
The rebels started their attack on the city at 3am from three directions in an attempt to take the government's regional headquarters, but the army was able to foil the advance, the official said. "So far more than 140 bodies have been found," he added. Meanwhile, sporadic clashes erupted in the Harf Sufyan area in the Amran province that borders Sa'ada, witnesses said. Yemenis of the Shiite Zaidi sect have been locked in battle with government forces since the army launched "operation scorched earth" in August in Saada and Amran provinces.
Last week dozens of civilians were reported killed in two army air raids, sparking condemnation from aid organisations and Yemeni rights groups. The United Nations top human rights official called on Sana'a to meet its obligations to civilians. In his address to mark the Eid, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the Shiite rebels, referred to as al Houthis after their leaders' clan, had ignored a ceasefire offer. "We hoped this offer would not be met with escalation including kidnapping, killing innocent citizens and using them as human shields," he said.
A military spokesman also accused the al Houthis of using "human shields" in a statement responding to footage published by the rebels appearing to show children killed in last week's air raid. He said the images were a "fabrication". The government in Sana'a says the rebels want to restore a Shiite state that fell in the 1960s and accuse Shiite power Iran of maintaining contacts with them. The rebels say they want autonomy and accuse Saleh of despotism and corruption in a drive to stay in power, as well as introducing Sunni fundamentalism via his alliance with Riyadh.
The rebel leader Abdul-Malik al Houthi, in comments published in Saudi daily Asharq al Awsat, rejected a key demand that the rebels stop hiding in the mountains of the north, saying this would amount to removing them from their lands. Mr al Houthi told the Saudi daily: "Most of the places where we live are in the mountain areas, so do they want to move us from there? We cannot accept this. "We have said that if the authorities stop targeting us, we will stop barricading [ourselves in the mountains]."
UN aid agencies say about 150,000 people have been made refugees since the fighting first began in 2004, with thousands staying in official and makeshift camps. Media have had difficulty accessing the conflict zone and verifying conflicting reports from each side. * Reuters, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse