SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Shi‘ite Muslim rebels who control much of northern Yemen will take part in talks aimed at resolving the country’s multiple political conflicts, a Yemeni official involved in preparing for the negotiations said on Tuesday.
The Houthi rebels have previously refused to take part in the national dialogue, an element of the Saudi- and U.S.-backed transition deal that removed Yemen’s longtime president from office this year in a bid to avert civil war.
Washington and Riyadh want to see that transition stabilise the impoverished country, whose army is fighting al Qaeda-linked Islamists who took over parts of its south during last year’s uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Dayfallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthis’ politburo, said the decision to take part did not mean they endorsed the transition plan, which was silent on the north: “Going to the dialogue doesn’t mean accepting the Gulf initiative.”
A member of the committee preparing for the talks, set for August in Cairo, said they will include prominent figures of a secessionist movement in southern Yemen, formerly a separate state whose 1990 union with the north collapsed into civil war four years later.
The official said a Yemeni government delegation would next week meet the former president of south Yemen, Ali Nasser Mohammed, but that another prominent secessionist who also held that post, Ali Salem al-Beidh, was unlikely to take part.
The United States accuses Iran of meddling in the south and north of Yemen where the Houthi rebels control Saada province, on the border of the world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
In the southern province of Abyan, Yemeni troops killed at least 23 Islamist militants late on Monday, a military official said, as part of a campaign to retake southern towns that a group called Ansar al-Sharia seized more than a year ago.
The official said the militants tried to infiltrate military positions in the south-western and northern edges of Zinjibar, the provincial capital, where central government troops and tribal militiamen are fighting the Islamists.
The Ministry of Defence website said some of the dead militants were foreigners, including one Somali and one Pakistani. One soldier was killed and another injured in the clashes, the ministry said.
The United States, which helped engineer Saleh’s replacement by his deputy in February, is backing the offensive in the south and has stepped up its campaign of drone strike assassinations of alleged al Qaeda members who it says plot attacks from Yemen.
Separately, at least 24 people were killed in clashes late on Monday in the north between Sunni Muslim Salafis and Houthis.
A spokesman for the Salafis - who regard Shi‘ites as heretics and espouse a puritanical creed with many followers in Saudi Arabia - said Houthi fighters attacked them on Sunday night in the Kataf area of the northern Saada province.
The spokesman, who identified himself as Abu Ismail, said nine of the dead were Salafis and 15 were Houthis. He said mediation efforts led by tribal elders to stop the fighting were under way.
Central government forces tried and failed to crush Houthi rebels between 2004 and 2009.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Robert Woodward