SANAA (Reuters) - At least 210 people have been killed in two months of fighting between Shi‘ite Muslim Houthis and ultra-conservative Sunni Salafis in northern Yemen, a Salafi spokesman said on Monday.
The violence erupted on October 30 when the Houthi rebels who control much of the northern Saada province accused Salafis in the town of Damaj of recruiting thousands of foreign fighters to prepare to attack them.
The Salafis, who follow a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, say the foreigners are students seeking to deepen their knowledge of Islam in the town’s Dar al-Hadith seminary.
Surour al-Wadi‘i, a Salafi spokesman, said the death toll among Salafis had risen to 210, with 620 wounded. A spokesman for the Houthis, Ali al-Bakhity, said no casualty figures were available for the Houthis.
Sectarian rivalry in Damaj has cast a shadow over reconciliation efforts in Yemen, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and home to one of al Qaeda’s most active wings.
Fighting between the two sides in Saada and adjacent provinces stopped as a ceasefire deal took hold on Saturday.
Several previous ceasefires have failed. The latest deal includes an agreement by the Salafis to leave Damaj and move to the town of Hadida and stipulates that the foreign students should go home, according to the ceasefire document seen by Reuters.
It gives Yehia al-Hagouri, the Salafi leader and a signatory to the ceasefire, four days to leave along with his followers.
Wadi‘i, the Salafi spokesman, criticized the deal saying it would strengthen the hand of the Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shi‘ite Islam, on all of Saada and eradicate any Sunni presence in the province.
But Bakhity said the deal stipulates that militants from both sides -- the Houthis and the Salafis -- would leave Damaj.
“The (seminary) is open for the local (Sunni) students in Damaj... This is a counter-campaign by some parties that don’t want this deal to work,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Saada province, on the border with Saudi Arabia, is a base for the Houthis’ long-running rebellion against the government.
The Houthi-Salafi conflict has compounded the challenges facing U.S.-allied Yemen, which is also grappling with a separatist movement in the south.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Tom Heneghan