SANAA (Reuters) – A Yemeni Shi’ite rebel leader on Tuesday denied government claims that the sect’s insurgents want to set up a Shi’ite state in north Yemen, describing the conflict as a fight for rights.
Several Arab countries are concerned over what they see as efforts by Shi’ite Muslim Iran to extend its influence by supporting the sect’s minorities in the region.
The rebel leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, said some soldiers were cooperating with the rebels despite “Operation Scorched Earth,” a campaign launched by the government in early August to try to crush the insurgency by the rebels — locally known as the Houthis after their leaders’ clan.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor and the world’s leading oil exporter, fear this conflict and separatist tension in the south could play into the hands of al Qaeda, which has staged a comeback in Yemen with attacks on government and foreign targets over the past two years.
The government has portrayed the conflict as an effort by extremists of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect to re-establish a cleric-ruled state, or “Imamate” in religious parlance, that fell in 1962 leading to the creation of the Yemeni republic.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaydi, has avoided sectarian language, but government rhetoric elsewhere regularly attacks the rebel movement over their Zaydi beliefs.
“The authority’s accusations about the Imamate are just a media war and misleading public opinion. We are not asking for positions, we are asking for rights and justice. The essence of the crisis is political,” Houthi said on the rebels’ website.
He denied that Iran was backing the rebels or providing arms, which he said some in the army had smuggled to them.
“We have been able to obtain a huge amount of equipment and weapons from (seized) army positions and it is not strange that there are some noble people of conscience in the army who have cooperated with us,” Houthi said.
The Houthi rebels say they have been marginalized through a rise in Sunni fundamentalism on the back of Saleh’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, whose puranitanical Wahhabi Islam regards Shi’ites as heretics.
Zaydis, who adhere to a different sect from the Shi’ism followed in leading Shi’ite power Iran, are thought to form around a third of Yemen’s population of around 23 million.
Saleh said on Saturday the army was ready to fight Shi’ite rebels for years if necessary, calling on them to accept a ceasefire his government has proposed.
The international aid group Oxfam said last week Yemen could soon face a humanitarian crisis as a result of the escalation of fighting. Since disturbances first broke out in 2004 around 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced, aid groups say.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in Geneva on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had agreed to cooperate on helping refugees.
“UNHCR has positioned tents, mattresses, blankets and other aid items for more than 2,000 people on the Saudi side of the border,” spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters, noting Saudi Arabia had announced a donation of $1 million for refugees.
(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Inal Ersan and Mark Trevelyan)