Six rebels and two soldiers were killed in a firefight near Sanaa on Thursday, as Huthis press on south towards the Yemeni capital, tribal and security sources said.
Eight of the Huthi rebels, also known as Ansarullah (Partisans of God), were wounded in the clash in Qaratel, a mountainous area 20 kilometers northwest of Sanaa, the sources said.
The firefight followed a rebel ambush, and came after days of bloody clashes between Ansarullah and tribesmen backing the influential party al-Islah in which at least 22 people have reportedly been killed since the weekend.
The army had intervened to end the on-off clashes which continued despite conflicting reports on the withdrawal of rebels from seven positions near Hamdan which they had seized in their advance towards the capital.
Tribal sources said rebels had withdrawn from a main road linking Sanaa, via Hamdan, to two neighboring provinces, Omran and Mahwit, but maintained checkpoints in several villages across the region.
Residents said that at least three checkpoints were under Ansarullah control early on Thursday around Shibam and Thula – two villages in the Hamdan area.
Last month, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s main parties agreed to transform the unrest-riven country into a six-region federation as part of a political transition.
The rebels, who complain that Yemen would be divided into rich and poor regions under the plan, have been trying to enlarge their zone of influence by pushing out from the mountains to areas closer to Sanaa.
In early February, the rebels seized parts of the northern province of Omran in clashes that left more than 150 people dead.
They also overran the home base of the al-Ahmar clan which is highly influential within al-Islah and which heads the powerful Hashid tribal confederation.
“The deployment of Huthis with their heavy weaponry in Hamdan is part of a well-coordinated plan with their allies in Sanaa to seize control of Omran and besiege the capital,” a military official told AFP.
The official, who requested anonymity, was referring to the entourage of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was forced to resign in 2012 following a year-long uprising.
Saleh’s critics accuse him of forming alliances with opponents of the interim authorities leading Yemen and hampering the deeply-tribal country’s political transition.
Both the rebels and southern separatists, who demand complete independence of what was formerly known as South Yemen, have rejected the proposed federal structure.