By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) – The leader of Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels on Monday offered a ceasefire to Saudi Arabia and said his fighters would withdraw from the kingdom’s territory to avoid more civilian casualties.
The announcement by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi followed three months of border fighting between Shi’ite rebels and Saudi forces who also used their air force to bomb rebel targets.
“To avoid more bloodshed and to stop aggression on civilians … we offer this initiative,” Houthi said in an audio recording posted on the Internet.
He warned that if Saudi Arabia did not end its hostilities in return, the rebels would wage an “open war” on the world’s top oil exporter.
Yemen’s central government has been fighting the rebels on and off since 2004, but the conflict intensified last summer when Sanaa launched Operation Scorched Earth to quash the latest upsurge in violence.
Saudi Arabia stepped into the fray in November when rebels seized some Saudi territory, prompting Riyadh to wage a major military offensive against them.
The conflict raging in the north has displaced around 200,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Monday humanitarian conditions in northern Yemen were worse than ever and that fighting had dramatically worsened the fate of Yemeni civilians.
Yemen is also in the throes of a crackdown on al Qaeda whose regional wing is based in the country, while also trying to contain simmering unrest from a southern separatist movement.
Western powers and Riyadh fear Yemen will become a failed state, allowing a resurgent al Qaeda to exploit chaos to use the country as a base for more international attacks.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said on its website that about 30 suspected al Qaeda militants were killed recently in a campaign against the group, but did not say when the deaths took place.
Al Qaeda killed three soldiers in the south of the country in a Sunday attack, a security official said on Monday.
Amnesty International said the campaign against al Qaeda could lead to human rights violations.
“The fear is that international demands for a crackdown on suspected supporters (of al Qaeda) will be interpreted by the government as a green light to crush all opposition with no consideration for human rights,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The government has resorted to increasingly repressive methods to counter this opposition, including waves of arrests, incommunicado detention and unlawful killings,” Smart said in a statement, referring to Shi’ite rebels and southern activists.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper the country was asking for help in facing al Qaeda, but not against Shi’ite rebels or southern secessionists.
“We are asking for help when it comes to al Qaeda and development, but in interior issues we look to treat them as interior issues,” he said.
Qirbi denied U.S. jets had been carrying out strikes on Yemeni soil but said Yemen needed practical aid from Washington.
“We are asking for more means of support to the (security) forces in the fight against terrorism in Yemen, such as the provision of aircraft, helicopters, means of transport, means of communication,” he said.
In the southern province of Dhalea, where secessionists held a protest strike, six people including three soldiers were wounded in clashes with troops, a local official said.
Shops and markets were closed on Monday as part of a general strike aimed at forcing separatist grievances onto the agenda of a Yemen conference in London on Wednesday to coordinate counter-terrorism and aid efforts for the troubled country.
Protests where southern secessionists clash with the central government’s security forces represent a growing threat for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
North and south Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh, who had been president of the north since 1978. The bumpy merger led to a brief 1994 civil war won by the north. Southerners say most state jobs and resources have gone to the north ever since.