DUBAI (Reuters) - Four supporters of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh were killed in clashes with their supposed allies from the Houthi movement in the centre of the capital Sanaa on Wednesday, his party said.
The fighting around the city’s main mosque complex underlined deepening rifts between the armed groups who have together confronted a Saudi-led alliance in three years of war.
Houthi fighters and army units loyal to Saleh made common cause to fan out through Yemen in 2015 and have weathered thousands of air strikes launched by neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its allies.
But they have fought between themselves briefly once before in August and have vied for influence in the capital and Yemen’s main population centres over which they rule.
In an official statement, Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party accused Houthi forces of trying to occupy part of the mosque site on Wednesday for a coming political rally.
Hundreds of Houthi fighters, the statement said, “broke into the Saleh Mosque and fired RPGs and grenades inside the mosque and put its regular guards under siege.”
They said four of Saleh’s supporters died and six guards were wounded in the complex built by Saleh and bearing his name which straddles a major highway and is close to the presidential palace. The Houthis, the statement said, were “responsible for every drop of blood.”
Officials from the Houthi group were not immediately available to comment on the reports of gunbattles, which were also reported in Arab media.
The two allies were once bitter foes, as Saleh launched several wars on the armed Shi‘ite Muslim religious movement before 2011 “Arab Spring” protests forced him to step down.
They formed a partnership to fight the Saudi-backed and internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his forces.
A political body the allies established continues to rule over most of Yemen’s population centres but quarrels over appointments and policy have mounted as a Saudi-led blockade has spread economic pain and helped unleash hunger and disease.
Taha Mutawakil, a Houthi spiritual leader, in a Friday sermon blasted Saleh’s rule as “black days” for Yemen and called for the Houthis to declare an economic state of emergency and seize the assets of Saleh-aligned businessmen.
The movement’s leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, appeared to direct an unprecedented salvo at pro-Saleh officials in a speech on Saturday: “He who does not understand the concept of alliance and partnership, is an obstacle and knows only how to be a rival.”
For their part, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party referred to pro-Houthi fighters as “cartoonish mercenary things” in an earlier statement.
Saudi Arabia accuses the Houthis, as Saleh frequently did before their alliance, of being proxies of Shi‘ite Iran - a charge the group and Tehran deny.
Writing By Noah Browning; Editing by Keith Weir and Andrew Heavens