* Ansar al-Sharia militants also capture central city of al-Odayn
* Fighting follows Shi‘ite Houthi rebel push into central Yemen
* Conflict rattles oil-exporting giant Saudi Arabia nearby
By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni Muslim insurgents killed 18 Shi‘ite Muslim Houthi rebels and seized an important city in central Yemen, tribal sources said on Monday, in a spread of sectarian conflict as central government authority has unravelled.
The northern-based Houthis established themselves as power brokers in Yemen last month by capturing the capital, Sanaa against scant resistance from the weak administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Houthi forces have since advanced into central Yemen and taken on Sunni tribesmen and al Qaeda militants, who regard the Houthis as heretics. Fighting has flared in several provinces, alarming the world’s No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door.
Tribal sources said that at least 10 Houthi fighters were killed when al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia fighters shelled a house in the town of Radda in al-Bayda province on Sunday night.
Eight more Houthi fighters were killed in clashes on the outskirts of Radda, they said.
Ansar al-Sharia said in a report from the al-Orsh area in al-Bayda that “dozens of Houthis” have been killed or wounded in battles since Sunday evening. “The battles are continuing until this moment,” the report added.
There was no immediate word on casualties from Ansar.
Radda, with a population of 60,000, has long been a stronghold of Ansar, which includes many fighters from local tribes who are up in arms over the new presence of Houthi rebels in the mainly Sunni-populated region.
There is growing international concern about Yemen’s turmoil because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia and international shipping lanes, as well as the risk of al Qaeda using the country as a springboard for attacks abroad.
In a significant development, residents and activists said al Qaeda fighters had marched into al-Odayn, a city of 200,000 in the central province of Ibb, captured the local government offices and raised their black and white flag on it.
“They came in at midday, invaded the town, chanting Allahu Akbar (God is Greater) and seized the government compound unopposed,” one resident of al-Odayn said.
Residents also said Sunni militants destroyed the home of a local Houthi member who had been trying to recruit local fighters to join a popular committee, a kind of a grassroots police force Houthis have established in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula country.
The Houthis’ advance and clashes with Ansar al-Sharia prompted often faction-ridden regional Sunni tribesmen to close ranks to try to protect themselves.
In a statement issued on Sunday, a committee of local tribesmen warned that they would not tolerate the presence of “any armed militia from any party” in al-Bayda province and called on the central government to step in to maintain order.
“The state must carry out its national duty to spare the province of sectarian strife...,” said the statement, which was obtained by Reuters.
The Yemeni armed forces have largely avoided confronting the Houthis since they moved into Sanaa last month, raising speculation that President Hadi was tacitly allowing the group to move freely while a new government is being formed.
Whether it would command more authority than the last one is big question, however. While the Houthis signed a power-sharing pact with other political parties, this has not deterred them from thrusting into other regions of Yemen.
In a further sign of gathering chaos, al Qaeda militants on Monday raided the Um al-Maghareb military airport in the eastern province of Hadramout province, not far from the Saudi border, and looted equipment, military and security sources said. (Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)