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Pro-Houthi fighters call powerful Yemen ally 'evil', escalating feud

DUBAI (Reuters) - Fighters loyal to the armed Houthi movement on Wednesday decried as “evil” the group’s main ally in Yemen’s civil war, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, widening an unusual public rift as they fight a Saudi-led coalition for control of the country.

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The “Popular Committees”, a body of rank and file pro-Houthi combatants, condemned Saleh’s description of them in a speech as a “militia,” criticizing the former leader who remains one of Yemen’s most powerful politicians and military figures.

“What (Saleh) said transgressed a red line and he could have only fallen into this because he’s evil and void of every good, patriotic or religious characteristic,” the collection of tribal and volunteer fighters said in a statement.

The tactical alliance between Saleh and the Houthis has often appeared fragile, with both groups suspicious of each other’s ultimate motives and sharing little ideological ground.

While president, Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis from 2002 to 2009 and was for many years an ally of convenience for Saudi Arabia.

Big switches of loyalty are a feature of Yemen’s byzantine political landscape, particularly since 2011 “Arab Spring” unrest which led to Saleh’s fall in 2012.

A war of words has escalated in recent days between the Iran-allied Houthis and Saleh, who together run northern Yemen.

The two factions have traded barbs on responsibility for challenges such as unemployment and mounting hunger after 2-1/2 years of fighting the internationally recognized government, based in the south and backed by the Saudi-led coalition.

The alliance intervened in the civil war in 2015 to restore the government to power in the capital Sanaa. But the conflict, which has killed at least 10,000 people, is in stalemate.

At least 30 people were killed in an air strike that hit a small hotel north of Sanaa on Wednesday, the Houthis said. The Saudi-led coalition has controlled Yemeni air space since the war began.

Based in the southern port city of Aden, the government struggles to impose its writ over militias and armed groups there, but strife now looms for its northern foes.

In a speech on Sunday, Saleh summoned party supporters to hold a mass rally in Sanaa on Aug. 24, a planned show of force that has deeply irritated the Houthis.

Their leadership convened on Wednesday and recommended the announcement of a state of emergency and suspension of all “party activity”, telling Saleh’s supporters any mass gatherings should be made on battlefronts, not in public squares.

In comments that may deepen Houthi suspicions, the United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, spoke approvingly of the rift, saying it “may represent an opportunity to break (Yemen’s) political deadlock.”

Reporting by Noah Browning; editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich