Yemeni soldiers clash with Shi'ite rebels near capital: official

DUBAI Wed Jun 18, 2014 8:05am EDT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Shi'ite rebels fought Yemeni soldiers just 25 miles (40 km) northwest of the capital Sanaa on Wednesday, an official said, as they try to tighten their grip in the area before next year's presidential election.

The government is considering giving greater autonomy to Yemen's regions after the military split and the state's control over its territory crumbled in the wake of 2011 Arab Spring protests which ousted veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The official, deputy governor of Northern Amran province Ahmed al-Bakri, told Reuters that Shi'ite Houthi rebels were fighting government troops backed by tribal militia for a second day in several villages.

Tribal sources said Houthi insurgents were also fighting government troops in two districts on Sanaa's western outskirts, also about 25 miles from the center of the capital.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Officials say the Houthis, who have fought short but devastating wars with government forces since 2004, are getting weapons from Iran and pursuing autonomy along the lines of Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. They deny this.

A power struggle between President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his predecessor escalated this week, with government forces raiding a pro-Saleh TV station. They have also surrounded a mosque in central Sanaa they say his supporters were planning to use as a base to attack the presidential palace.

Yemen is also battling a secessionist movement in the south as well as al Qaeda militants whom Gulf neighbors and the United Sates view as a critical threat to regional security.

In January, Yemen's political factions ended 10 months of reconciliation talks with a deal to turn Yemen into a federal state and outlining principles for a new constitution, on the basis of which presidential elections are expected in 2015.

(Reporting by Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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