SANAA: Nine people have been killed in sectarian fighting in northern Yemen between Shiite Huthi rebels and Sunni Islamists backed by local tribes, a tribal source said Friday.
Huthi rebels have been battling the Sanaa government for nearly a decade in the remote Saada province, but the outbreak of fighting with Sunni militants has deepened the sectarian dimension of the unrest.
"Seven Huthis and two tribesmen were killed on Thursday in the clashes, which is continuing intermittently," particularly in the Kitaf area in the north of Saada and in neighbouring Amran province, the source told AFP.
A spokesman for the salafists, Khaled al-Azzani, confirmed the toll to AFP.
An official from the Huthi Ansarullah (Partisans of God) group, Ali al-Bakheeti, said the clashes in Amran had left dead and wounded, without elaborating.
Fighting erupted in late October in the Saada town of Dammaj, home to a salafist mosque and koranic school for Sunni preachers, reportedly after an attack by Huthi rebels on one of their mosques.
The Huthis, named after their late leader Abdel Malek al-Huthi, are part of the Zaidi Shiite community.
They rose up in 2004 against the government of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, accusing it of marginalising them politically and economically.
They accuse radical Sunnis in Dammaj of turning the town centre into "a real barracks for thousands of armed foreigners", a reference to the Dar al-Hadith koranic school, where foreigners study.
Heavily armed tribes have deployed forces in Saada and neighbouring provinces to try to loosen the Huthis' hold on Saada.
The Red Cross said has struggled to gain access to the area since November 24, when it evacuated casualties and brought aid to residents.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday it was ready to enter Dammaj to evacuate casualties, "provided it is able to carry out its work" without conditions being laid down.
The ICRC delegation head in Sanaa, Cedric Schweizer, urged "parties involved in the conflict in Dammaj and elsewhere in Saada ... to protect and care for the wounded".
It has not been possible to compile a precise toll for the fighting, as the region is virtually inaccessible to journalists.
Azzani told AFP on Friday that the salafist camp had suffered "180 dead, including 23 children and four women, and 510 wounded".
"Among the dead there are foreign students, originally from the Maghreb, Europe, France and America," he said without giving further details.
He called the situation in Dammaj "tragic," accusing Huthis of bombarding the town with heavy weapons.
Bakheeti, however, described the violence as a "tribal, and not a sectarian, war as it is presented by the salafists".