DUBAI, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Residents heard gunfire in the centre of the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Wednesday, escalating a week of mutual criticism between two armed political groupings who have held the city during nearly three years of war against a Saudi-led coalition.
The armed Houthi movement and loyalists of the country’s ex-president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, made common cause to seize much of Yemen in 2015 and their forces have weathered thousands of air strikes launched by Riyadh and its allies.
Eyewitnesses reported hearing the sound of shooting around a sprawling mosque complex which straddles a major highway and is close to the presidential palace.
A source in Saleh’s political party told Reuters that armed Houthi fighters entered the mosque, which was built and named after Yemen’s former strongman, and sought to take it over.
“This will increase tensions. There are sporadic clashes going on in the political district in Sanaa,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
There were no reports of casualties, and officials from the Houthi group were not immediately available to comment on the gunfire reports, which also were reported in Arab media.
The two allies were once bitter foes, as Saleh launched several wars on the armed Shi’ite Muslim religious movement before 2011 “Arab Spring” protests forced him to step down.
Despite their partnership to fight Saudi-backed Yemeni forces under the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, they have frequently sparred for supremacy and their rivalry led to deadly clashes in August.
A political body they established continues to rule over most of Yemen’s population centres but quarrels over appointments and policy have mounted as a Saudi-led blockade has spread economic pain and helped unleash hunger and disease.
Taha Mutawakil, a Houthi spiritual leader, in a Friday sermon blasted Saleh’s rule as “black days” for Yemen and called for the Houthis to declare an economic state of emergency and seize the assets of Saleh-aligned businessmen.
The movement’s leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi appeared to direct an unprecedented salvo at pro-Saleh officials in a speech on Saturday: “He who does not understand the concept of alliance and partnership, is an obstacle and knows only how to be a rival.”
For their part, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party referred to pro-Houthi fighters as “cartoonish mercenary things” in a statement.
Saudi Arabia accuses the Houthis, as Saleh frequently did before their alliance, of being proxies of Shi’ite Iran — a charge the group and Tehran deny. (Writing By Noah Browning; editing by Sami Aboudi and Keith Weir)