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Airlines halt flight to Yemeni capital amid fighting between Shiite rebels and Sunni militias

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SANAA, Yemen — Foreign airlines halted flights to the main international airport in the Sanaa because of heavy fighting between Shiite rebels and Sunni militias in the Yemeni capital, the state civil aviation authority said Friday.

Battles erupted a day earlier between the Shiite rebels known as the Hawthis and gunmen loyal to the Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Yemen. The two sides fought in Shamlan, a suburb of Sanaa that is home to the Islamic Iman University, an institution seen as a breeding ground for Sunni militants.

Amid the fighting, the Hawthis hit the headquarters of state television with mortars Thursday evening. Thousands have fled their homes in the area.

PHOTO: In this photo taken on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, Hawthi Shiite protesters walk near tents at a sit-in in a main road leading to the airport in Sanaa, Yemen. Security officials say Shiite rebels have reached a suburb of Yemen's capital where they are fighting Sunni militias and besieging a university run by one of the nation's best known Sunni radicals. The officials say Thursday's fighting on Sept. 18, 2014 in Shamlan has forced thousands to flee their homes, but they have no word on casualties. They say the rebels, known as Hawthis, are surrounding the Iman University, an institution long viewed as a primary breeding ground for militants. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, Hawthi Shiite protesters walk near tents at a sit-in in a main road leading to the airport in Sanaa, Yemen. Security officials say Shiite rebels have reached a suburb of Yemen's capital where they are fighting Sunni militias and besieging a university run by one of the nation's best known Sunni radicals. The officials say Thursday's fighting on Sept. 18, 2014 in Shamlan has forced thousands to flee their homes, but they have no word on casualties. They say the rebels, known as Hawthis, are surrounding the Iman University, an institution long viewed as a primary breeding ground for militants. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

In a statement carried on the state news agency SABA early Friday, the civil aviation authority said foreign airlines suspended flights to Sanaa airport for 24 hours, after which they will review the security situation.

The Hawthis have emerged as a powerful new player in the chronically unstable, impoverished nation. Over the past months, their fighters have scored a string of victories in the north, defeating mainly hardline Islamist fighters, bringing them the doorstep of Sanaa.

In the capital, they have led a campaign of street protests calling for the replacement of the government and economic reforms. One of their protest camps is set up on the main road leading to the airport.

The Hawthis' opponents accuse them of being a proxy for mainly Shiite Iran and of seeking to grab power, a claim the group denies.

The rebels' advances add a new layer of turmoil in Yemen, where the government has long been battling one of the most powerful branches of the al-Qaida terror network. There is also a growing separatist movement in the south, a region that once constituted an independent state before it merged with northern Yemen.

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