SANAA (Reuters) - A gunfight between Yemeni Shi‘ite rebels and pro-government fighters killed seven people in the deadliest clash since a February truce calmed a northern war, officials said Thursday.
The clash broke out after dozens of armed rebels descended on a village -- said to be a pro-government stronghold -- for a rally in support of families of rebels killed in the war that raged on and off since 2004, a local official said.
The tribal fighters, who fought alongside the state in the war, tried to stop the rebel rally, and a melee erupted.
“The Houthis wanted to hold a rally in Damaj but the locals prevented them. They engaged in a quarrel, which escalated to an armed clash in which three tribesmen and four Houthis were killed,” a local official said, referring to the rebels by the clan name of their leader, Abdel Malek al-Houthi.
A rebel official confirmed a clash had occurred.
The government, struggling to stabilize a fractious country where al Qaeda is also trying to strengthen its foothold, agreed a truce with the rebels in February. The war has displaced 250,000 people and drawn in neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Yemen jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional arm claimed responsibility for an attempted December attack on a U.S.-bound plane.
Western governments and Saudi Arabia want Yemen to calm its domestic conflicts to focus its fight on al Qaeda, which they fear is exploiting instability in Yemen to use the Arabian peninsula state as a base for attacks in the region and beyond.
An al Qaeda suicide bomber tried but failed to kill Britain’s ambassador to Yemen Monday in Sanaa.
Meanwhile sporadic violence has re-emerged in the north, straining the truce despite a declaration last month by President Ali Abdullah Saleh that the war in the north was definitely over.
Previous truces have not lasted and analysts are skeptical about this one too, so long as Shi‘ite complaints of discrimination by the state remain unaddressed.
Separately, a Yemeni soldier was killed by a land mine left by the rebels in the north, the interior ministry said.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dominic Evans