At least 40 people have been killed in three days of fighting between Shi'ite Muslim fighters and Sunni tribesmen, sources on both sides said on Sunday, as sectarian fighting that flared up in October in the north drew closer to the capital Sanaa.
Fighters loyal to the Shi'ite Houthi tribe, who have repeatedly fought government forces since 2004, are trying to tighten their grip on the north as Yemen — home to one of al-Qaida's most active branches — moves towards a federal system that gives more power to regional authorities.
Fighting on Friday and Saturday in al-Jawf province, about 90 miles north-east of Sanaa, claimed more than 30 lives before government mediators managed to broker a truce.
And clashes on Sunday in Hamdan, an area north-west of Sanaa killed more than 10 people, officials said.
The Houthis — who control much of the northern Saada province bordering Saudi Arabia and next to al-Jawf — also blew up a three-story Salafi religious seminary in Hamdan on Sunday, local tribal sources said.ls on both sides said. Fighting is still ongoing, they said.
The Houthi fighters arrived in Hamdan from northern Yemen to safeguard access from their northern stronghold of Saada to Sanaa, where they have large following, tribal sources said.
They said they had no intention of entering the capital.
Fighting in the north erupted last year when the Houthis accused Sunni Salafis at the town of Dammaj of recruiting foreign fighters to prepare an attack. The Salafis said the foreigners were students who had come to study Islam.
The seminary, built in the 1980s, attracts a number of students with links to Al-Qaeda, including several alumni who went on to become prominent Al-Qaeda leaders, according to Yemen-based journalist Nasser Arrabyee.
Salafis, who follow an austere brand of Sunni Islam, view Houthis as heretics.
A local official called on government mediators to try to stop the fighting and warned in a statement carried by Yemeni media that failure to do so would result in a “bloodbath."
Houthi armed groups fought the Salafis in northern Yemen from October until early January, when a cease-fire was reached to relocate the Salafis to another city some 155 miles away.
More than 210 people have been killed since fighting erupted in late October after the Houthis first accused the Salafis of recruiting foreign militants, according to Reuters.
While religious sectarianism has been on the rise in recent years, political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani told Al Jazeera that the conflict is essentially a political dispute over territory. "Both sides are fighting to establish control of the territory," he told Al Jazeera.
A presidential committee in January approved the division of Yemen into six federal regions as part of the country's political transition following the 2011 resignation of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Houthis rejected the plan, saying that the proposed division of the republic does not distribute wealth evenly.
"We have rejected it, because it divides Yemen into poor and wealthy" regions, Mohammed al-Bakheiti, a Houthi representative, told AFP.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.