SANAA, Yemen — Clashes between rebel factions in the Yemeni capital Sanaa continued for a second day on Thursday, with Houthi troops moving against forces loyal to a former president and accusing them of fomenting a coup with the help of the United Arab Emirates, security officials said.
Shiite Houthi rebels have largely taken control of a southern Sanaa neighborhood centered around a mosque named after Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, they said. The two allied factions control much of Yemen’s north and are facing off against a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition fighting on behalf of the country’s internationally recognized government.
It appeared the clashes began Wednesday evening with a dispute over use of the mosque in the Sabeen neighborhood, where the Houthis wanted to hold festivities for the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to reporters.
Yemen fell into chaos following its 2011 Arab Spring uprising that deposed Saleh, its longtime autocratic ruler who later joined forces with the Shiite Houthis to drive out his successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition has been battling the rebels and Saleh’s forces since March 2015.
Al-Qaida has taken advantage of the security breakdown to seize territory and expand operations in impoverished Yemen, which sits along strategic oil shipping routes.
The United States meanwhile has continued to carry out drone strikes against alleged al-Qaida positions but in many occasions has killed civilians.
On Thursday, witnesses said a U.S. drone fired missiles at houses in the central province of Bayda in a village called Ghashm Sarar, killing three suspected militants. Sadek al-Jouf, once a chief mediator between militants and tribes and a resident of a nearby town, told The Associated Press that 11 people were killed and none was a member of al-Qaida. He also said missiles hit an ambulance carrying the injured. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify his account.
Al-Qaida in Yemen, viewed by Washington as the mother group’s most dangerous branch, has been active in Bayda, where large areas are torn in fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces.
Houthis have also waged cross-border attacks inside Saudi territory and fired a series of ballistic missiles inside the country, as far as the capital Riyadh, prompting the Saudis to declare a complete shutdown of all ports and airports in Yemen. The blockade exacerbated the already tragic humanitarian situation Yemen and U.N. agencies put heavy pressures on the coalition until it reversed the closure, at least partially.
But the Houthis have continued to fire missiles. On Thursday, Houthi TV network al-Masirah reported that militias fired a ballistic missile that was “successful” in hitting its target inside Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi state-linked Sabq agency said air defenses shot down the projectile, which targeted a southern air base in Asir province.
The Houthis in Sanaa reportedly were supported by reinforcements from their northern stronghold and drove out forces loyal to Saleh with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire, occupying buildings used by his political party in Thursday’s clashes.
Fighting between the two groups killed some 10 fighters from both sides a day earlier, officials said, with combat spilling over to the neighborhood that includes the homes of Saleh’s family. Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress, appealed for calm in a statement.
The Houthis said in a statement Thursday that the state would “enforce the law” and confront “anyone who deviates from the path of the battle of liberation, sovereignty and independence,” referring to their struggle against the Saudi-led alliance.
The Emirates, a key member of the Saudi-led anti-rebel coalition, supports its own allies in the country’s south, centered in the port city of Aden. On Thursday, the security officials said that Hadi’s government cancelled independence day celebrations there over security concerns.
Over the past two years, more than 10,000 people have been killed and 3 million displaced in the coalition’s air campaign. With the country in a stalemate war, cholera began to rear its ugly head in October 2016, but the epidemic escalated rapidly in April. The fighting has damaged infrastructure and caused shortages of medicine and pushed the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.