SANNA, (Reuters) – Yemen said on Wednesday at least 80 Shi’ite Muslim rebels had been killed in fighting which erupted two weeks ago after a presidential order to crack down on militants.
Sporadic clashes broke out on Jan. 27 in the northern province of Saada when followers of Shi’ite rebel Abdul-Malik al-Houthi launched a mortar attack on security buildings, killing six soldiers and wounding 20. “We have killed at least 80 people who are fighting with al-Houthi,” a senior government official told Reuters. Officials have said they lost at least 40 soldiers in the past two weeks.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered the army last month to crack down on Houthi and his group for trying to install Shi’ite religious rule in the country and also for preaching violence against the United States.
A close aide to Houthi, who asked not to be named, said the government figure was inaccurate. “They are exaggerating, I cannot count all the corpses, but they are a lower number,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Houthi is in good health and taking care of his men.”
The clashes are taking place in a mountainous area. Residents said Houthi’s men were stationed on hilltops using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, making it difficult for troops to drive them out.
Houthi’s aide said the militants had tried to open channels for talks with the authorities, but had received no response.
In 2004, Houthi’s brother Hussein al-Houthi, an anti-American cleric, was killed in clashes with the army.
Sunni Muslims make up most of Yemen’s 19 million population while about 15 percent are Shi’ite Muslims.
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States. Houthi’s supporters are not linked to al Qaeda.