SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Yemeni Shi‘ite Muslims chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel” buried the remains of the founder of the armed Houthi rebel group on Wednesday, nine years after he was killed in fighting with government forces.
Crowds braved sweltering temperatures and windy conditions in the rugged northern Yemeni mountains as they made their way to the burial site, where armed rebels were deployed in large numbers.
The Yemeni government turned over the remains of Hussein al-Houthi to his family earlier this year as a goodwill gesture to bolster national reconciliation talks aimed at drafting a new constitution ahead of elections scheduled next year.
The previous government of veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down last year after a popular uprising, originally buried Houthi at the central prison in Sanaa to prevent his grave becoming a shrine for the Zaidi sect from which he came.
The Houthis are an important tribe belonging to the Shi‘ite Zaidi sect, whose Hashemite line ruled for 1,000 years before the 1962 revolution, and which accounts for about 25 percent of Yemen’s population of 25 million.
It controls the northern province of Saada and parts of the neighboring provinces of Omran, al-Jouf and Hajja bordering top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
At the re-burial, armed men in military uniforms similar to those worn by Iranian Revolutionary Guards carried the remains, wrapped in a green cloth inscribed with the words “the founding commander, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi”.
A representative of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi attended the funeral.
But a spokesman for the Houthis accused the government of refusing to give visas to several dignitaries who wanted to travel to Yemen to attend the ceremony, and of tearing down pictures of Houthi put up in the capital Sanaa.
“This shows the authorities have not moved far from the position of the previous regime,” Mohammed Abdel-Salam said.
Complaining of social, religious and economic discrimination in Yemen, the Houthis fought several battles with government forces between 2004 and 2010, when a truce was announced.
Saudi Arabia was drawn briefly into the conflict in 2010 when rebels crossed into its territory.
Impoverished Yemen is beset by internal divisions, including fighting between militants linked to al Qaeda and pro-government forces in the south of the country.
The international community is seeking to restore stability to a country the United States believes is home to one of the al Qaeda’s most dangerous wings, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Reporting by Adel al-Khader and Mohammed Ghobari, writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mike Collett-White