Fatal Blast Hits Market in Restive Area of Yemen

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 1, 2007

SANAA, Yemen, May 31 -- An explosion tore through a market in northwestern Yemen on Wednesday, killing at least six people, officials said, in the latest bloodshed of a simmering war that has pitted followers of a Shiite rebel leader against government forces.

Since it erupted again in January, the fighting in Saada province has killed hundreds of soldiers and rebels and forced about 35,000 people to flee their homes, among them members of Yemen's tiny, Arabic-speaking Jewish minority, according to relief officials. But there are virtually no firsthand accounts of the war in the mountainous tribal region, which borders Saudi Arabia and has long chafed under government authority.

By imposing a gantlet of checkpoints, the government has barred journalists from the area, and the Red Cross suspended aid shipments to rural parts of the province after one of its convoys was attacked May 2.

Accounts differed on the violence Wednesday. Security officials in Saada said rebels fired a mortar round in Suq al-Lail, a few miles north of the provincial capital, where people had gathered to buy khat, a mild stimulant chewed by most Yemenis. The shell landed at 1:30 p.m. near a gas station, igniting fuel tanks. The officials said six people were killed and 15 were wounded.

Tribal leaders reached by telephone disputed the official version, saying a tank shell fired by government forces caused the explosion. They said 15 people were killed and dozens wounded in the blast and fire that followed.

The rebels have fought government forces before, in clashes starting in 2004. Their original leader was Hussein al-Houthi, a Shiite cleric killed during the first uprising. Since then his relatives, led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, have continued the fight, casting the war as a local one and saying they are defending their villages from what they consider government aggression.

The government, though, has contended that Libya and, to a greater degree, Iran are stoking this round of violence, which has proved longer and more pitched than the previous ones. Iran, a Shiite Muslim country, has repeatedly called the accusations "irresponsible," but Yemen recalled its ambassador from Tehran earlier this year.

Given the sectarian tension in the region unleashed by the war in Iraq, government officials have also publicly expressed worries that the fighting could bring communal violence to a country in which some powerful tribes already treat the state as just another faction vying for power.

"We aren't against Shiites, who are an Islamic sect, but we don't want sectarianism to be a cause of political deterioration and a means of terrorism," Yemeni Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi said at a news conference last week.

Yemen is a majority Sunni Muslim country, but the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam -- different from the school practiced in Iran -- predominates in Saada, where the sect was born. Although its fortunes shifted, a Zaydi state exercised degrees of authority in Yemen for more than 1,000 years until it was overthrown by a revolution in 1962. Through the 1960s, resistance to a new republican government was fiercest in Saada, and government authority remains weak there. There are an estimated 7 million weapons in the country of about 22 million people.

The government says the rebels -- estimated at 1,600 by Alimi -- are fighting to restore the Zaydi state and disrupt Yemen's ties to the United States. Although Alimi said the army has seized control of all but three rebel strongholds, many expect the fighting to persist, and some worry that a swath of Yemen beyond the government's control could attract subversive elements seeking a base.

"If we don't take care of it, I have a fear that terrorists will gather there," said Faris Sanabani, a newspaper publisher in Sanaa, the capital. "It's a difficult environment, it's very difficult for the government to move in with the technology they have. They don't have American technology; there are no roads through these mountains. It's extremely important to take care of it as soon as possible."

But critics and even some diplomats speculate that the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has inflated the threat -- and the suggestion of foreign meddling -- to attract international support. A former military officer in power since 1978 and not considered overly religious or ideological, Saleh is a renowned deal-maker, a valuable trait in a country as fractious as Yemen.

"Yemen wants to act as a policeman for the Bush administration, sometimes worse," said Khaled Alanesi, executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a human rights group based in Sanaa.

In a statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which maintains an office in Saada, said the government crackdown, with the deployment of thousands of troops, has put towns under siege, and residents have complained of shortages of rice, wheat and fuel. Eman Moanqar, a spokesman, estimated that the fighting so far has displaced between 4,500 and 5,500 families.

Special correspondent Khaled al-Mahdi contributed to this report.

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