By Mohammed Sudam
SANAA, May 22 (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Tuesday he would consider Shi’ite Muslim rebels’ demands to end fighting with government forces but would not change the secular political system of the Arab country.
Rebels, led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, have been battling government forces in the province of Saada since January, when Saleh ordered a clampdown after they attacked security forces.
The rebels, who oppose Yemen’s close alliance with United States, have demanded an end to the government crackdown, an amnesty to all those involved in the violence and permission to set up a political party.
The Yemeni government says they also want to reinstall the Islamic Imamate that was overthrown in 1962.
"We will look into any demands they propose, however, a return to the Imamate is impossible," Saleh said in a televised speech to mark the unity between northern and southern Yemen.
"A delegation of religious clerics have headed to Saada to persuade the insurgents to surrender themselves and respond to the decision of the National Defence Council for them to surrender their weapons," he said, adding that government forces were suspending operations for one day to mark the unification.
Under the Imamate, the ruler was a descendent of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, a blood link the Houthis themselves claim.
In a statement issued last week, Yahya al-Houthi, the exiled brother of the rebel leader, made more modest demands.
Houthi, who is now in Germany, said the rebels wanted a presidential amnesty for all those involved in the violence that has raged on and off since 2004, the release of all prisoners taken on both sides and the return of the remains of all those killed in the conflict to their families.
The rebels also want the creation of an independent political party, within two months of approval, which would work within the existing political system and constitution.
They also want the government to set up a timeframe for the reconstruction of Saada province and payment of compensation.
Saleh has urged the rebels to surrender and promised a fair trial for those involved in "war crimes".
Sunnis make up most of Yemen’s 19 million people and most of the rest belong to the Zaidi branch of Shi’ite Islam. Houthi and his followers are Zaidis but diplomats say the struggle in the north is about political power more than sectarian divisions.
Senior Yemeni officials say hundreds have been killed on both sides since the latest outbreak of violence in January.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says thousands had been forced to flee their homes in Saada this year.