SANAA // A Yemeni Shiite leader on Tuesday denied government claims that insurgents want to set up a Shiite state in north Yemen, insisting that the conflict was a fight for rights. Several Arab countries are concerned over what they see as efforts by Iran to extend its influence by supporting its fellow Shia in the region. The rebel leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi, said some soldiers were co-operating with the rebels despite "Operation Scorched Earth", a campaign launched by the government in early August to try to crush the insurgency by the rebels, also known as the Houthis after their leaders' clan.
Both the US and Saudi Arabia fear the conflict and separatist tension in the south could play into the hands of al Qa'eda, which has staged a comeback in Yemen, with attacks on government and foreign targets over the past two years. The government has portrayed the conflict as an effort by extremists of the Shiite Zaydi sect to re-establish the imamate that fell in 1962, leading to the creation of the Yemeni republic.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaydi, has avoided sectarian language, but government rhetoric elsewhere regularly attacks the rebels over their Zaydi beliefs. Mr Houthi said on the rebels' website: "The authority's accusations about the imamate are just a media war and misleading public opinion. We are not asking for positions, we are asking for rights and justice. The essence of the crisis is political."
He denied that Iran was backing the rebels or providing arms, which he said some in the army had smuggled to them. "We have been able to obtain a huge amount of equipment and weapons from [seized] army positions and it is not strange that there are some noble people of conscience in the army who have co-operated with us," Mr Houthi said. The Houthi rebels claim they have been marginalised through a rise in Sunni fundamentalism on the back of Mr Saleh's alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Zaydis are thought to form around a third of Yemen's population of around 23 million. Mr Saleh said on Saturday that the army was ready to fight Shiite rebels for years if necessary, calling on them to accept a ceasefire proposed by his government. The international aid group Oxfam said last week that Yemen could soon face a humanitarian crisis as a result of the escalation of fighting. Since disturbances first broke out in 2004, around 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced, aid groups say.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said in Geneva on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had agreed to co-operate on helping refugees. Its spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, said Saudi Arabia had announced a donation of US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for refugees. "UNHCR has positioned tents, mattresses, blankets and other aid items for more than 2,000 people on the Saudi side of the border," he said. * Reuters