SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen reiterated its ceasefire conditions to Shi’ite Muslim rebels on Friday to try to end weeks of fighting that has killed dozens of people in the north of the mainly Sunni Muslim country.
“We offer those elements another chance to resort to peace and return to the righteous path based on unconditional commitment to the six points during the coming hours and days,” President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a Ramadan speech broadcast on Yemeni state television.
Saleh said that if the rebels rejected peace, the government “would face this sedition in a decisive way.”
Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, has been battling the Shi’ite rebellion in the north as well as a wave of al-Qaeda attacks and rising secessionist sentiment in the south.
The rebels belong to the Shi’ite Zaydi sect and want Zaydi schools in their area. They oppose the government’s alliance with the United States and say they are defending their villages against government oppression.
Rebels loyal to leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi earlier this month rejected the six conditions for a ceasefire which included a rebel withdrawal, the removal of rebel checkpoints and the clarification of the fate of kidnapped foreigners.
The conditions also require rebels to return captured military and civilian equipment, hand over those behind the June kidnapping of nine foreigners and to refrain from intervening in local authority affairs.
The nine kidnapped foreigners — seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean, including three children and their mother — were kidnapped in the mountainous northern province of Saada, a rebel stronghold.
Three of them, two German nurses and a South Korean teacher, have since been found dead.
The rebels have denied holding any civilians.
Clashes between government troops and rebels during the last couple of days in the north of the country have killed and wounded dozens on both sides, a military official told Reuters earlier on Friday.
Officials say the rebels have displaced around 17,000 families from their homes in the province of Saada.
Yemeni forces have used air strikes, tanks and artillery in the recent offensive, described by officials as a determined attempt to crush the revolt.
In July 2008, Saleh said four years of intermittent fighting had ended and that dialogue should replace combat. But despite attempts to start talks, sporadic fighting has continued and intensified.
Officials say the rebels want to restore a form of clerical rule prevalent in Yemen until the 1960s.
Writing by Jason Benham; editing by Robin Pomeroy