Yemen denounces Iranian 'interference' in its internal affairs

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 12, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- The Yemeni government on Wednesday lashed out against what it described as Iranian "interference" in its affairs, escalating tensions in a civil conflict pitting Yemen's army against Shiite rebels that has drawn in Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, and raised fears of a regional proxy war.

"We affirm that Yemen categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs by any party whatsoever," a Foreign Ministry spokesman told the government-run Saba news agency. "Yemen also rejects any attempt by any party to represent itself as the protector of sons of the Yemeni people."

The comments came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki publicly warned that countries in the region should not intervene in Yemen's internal affairs. "Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows," Mottaki declared in what many viewed as a veiled threat by the Shiite theocracy to Saudi Arabia's Sunni rulers.

Saudi Arabia launched an offensive last week inside Yemen after Shiite rebels, known as Hawthis, staged a cross-border raid, killing a Saudi border guard and briefly seizing Saudi territory. Saudi fighter jets crossed the 930-mile border with Yemen and bombed the rebels' northern mountainous havens. On Tuesday, Saudi officials said the kingdom had imposed a naval blockade on northern Yemen's Red Sea coast to prevent weapons from reaching the rebels, who accuse Saudi Arabia of backing Yemeni forces against them.

The Hawthis, who are named after their leader's clan, have been fighting the Yemeni government since 2004, but the fighting has escalated dramatically in the past three months. Saying they are marginalized politically and economically, the rebels are seeking a greater religious voice for their Zaydi brand of Shiite Islam. Yemen's Sunni-ruled government says the rebels are trying to turn the nation into a Shiite state.

Yemen has accused Iran of funneling arms and providing financial backing to the rebels, but the Yemeni government has not provided evidence to support the assertions. The rebels have insisted that they receive no support from Iran or any other foreign powers.

The fighting has displaced about 175,000 people in Yemen's northwest Saada province, according to the United Nations.

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