SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters backed by government forces drove the local wing of al Qaeda from one of its last strongholds in central Yemen on Friday in intense fighting that killed at least 35 people, tribal sources said.
The Houthis’ Ansarullah movement has become the main political force in Western-allied Yemen since capturing Sanaa in September and then pushing south and west into the Sunni Muslim heartland of al-Bayda province, where Ansar al-Sharia has allied itself with local tribes.
Yemen has been in turmoil since 2011, to the dismay of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and of the Western powers who want to prevent instability in the Arabian peninsula threatening their crude supplies or giving al Qaeda a base for overseas attacks.
Tribal sources said the Houthis had met stiff resistance as they pushed towards the village of Khobza district using Katuysha rockets and heavy artillery.
They said at least 25 Houthis and 10 Ansar al-Sharia and tribal fighters had died in the fighting, which began on Thursday afternoon. Ansar al-Sharia and its allies withdrew to Yakla district, on the border with Maarib province.
The fighting has given Yemen’s strife a sectarian slant as Sunni tribes have lined up with Ansar al-Sharia, the local affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which views Shi’ites such as the Houthis as heretics.
On Thursday, the Houthis, who had for years complained of discrimination against their northern homeland, endorsed a new government in Sanaa to replace the one they had forced to step down.
Last month, an al Qaeda suicide bomber killed at least 47 people, mostly members of the Houthi group, as they prepared to stage a rally in Sanaa.
Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Kevin Liffey