BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Yemeni Army fought back a major offensive by rebels in the northern city of Sadah early Sunday morning, killing dozens of insurgents, witnesses and Yemeni officials said.
The battle appears to have been the boldest rebel attack yet in five weeks of renewed fighting in Yemen’s remote and mountainous Sadah Province, near the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthi rebels have been clashing intermittently with Yemen’s government for five years, and the latest round of fighting, which erupted last month after a yearlong cease-fire, has been the bloodiest so far.
The attack began just before dawn Sunday, witnesses said, as hundreds of Houthi rebels ambushed three military checkpoints and tried to take over the presidential palace in Sadah, the provincial capital.
The rebels appear to have hoped the start of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr and the government’s announcement of a unilateral suspension of fighting on Friday would give them the element of surprise.
But the better-armed military was ready and fought the rebels back, witnesses and officials said. Reports of the death toll varied, with some news agencies saying more than 140 rebels had been killed. There was no word on whether any Yemeni soldiers died.
The foiled ambush came days after a government airstrike in Amran Province, near the border with Sadah, killed dozens of civilian refugees, drawing condemnations from human rights groups. The Sadah conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people, international monitors say, leaving many refugees stranded without adequate food or water.
The Yemeni government says the rebels are preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone, and has accused them of using civilians as human shields.
Despite their geographical isolation, the rebels have acquired an increasingly sophisticated arsenal, largely by capturing or buying government weapons. In propaganda videotapes, Houthi soldiers can be seen driving Yemeni Army tanks. The Yemeni government has accused the rebels of receiving unofficial support from Iran, but the Houthis deny it. The conflict in Sadah, which began in 2004, has a sectarian element: the Houthis are Zaidis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is fairly common in Yemen, and the government has used radical Sunni militants as proxy forces against them.
The government has accused the Houthis of trying to restore the traditional Zaidi-led imamate that largely ruled Yemen until 1962. The Houthis deny it, saying they merely want more autonomy in Sadah and restitution for war damages.
The Sadah conflict has underscored the vulnerability of Yemen. Desperately poor, the country is also facing a separatist movement in the south and a resurgent presence of Al Qaeda that has become a deep concern for the United States. The government’s ability to cope with such challenges has long been limited by Yemen’s deep tribal traditions and its rugged terrain.
Khaled al-Hammadi contributed reporting from Yemen.
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