Ten die in Yemen mosque battle

At least 10 people have died in a two-day battle between Shias and Sunnis for control of a mosque in northern Yemen. Although tribal fighting in the country is common, the sectarian dimension in this case is new and alarming.

It appears to have started with both sides insisting on their ownchoice of imam and rejecting the other side’s choice.

According to the Yemen Observer, supporters of the Houthi rebels (Zaidi Shia) seized the Zain al-Abidin mosque in the Zahra district of al-Jawf province on Saturday:

Groups from the Islah party [Sunni, Islamist] tried to recover the mosque, but faced armed resistance leading to confrontations between the two sides, resulting in the death of one Islah party member and the flight of the others from the battlefield.

The next day, 40 cars carrying armed Islah party members went ... to avenge the death of their colleague and to restore rightful control of the mosque, but the Houthis ambushed and attacked them, killing two and injuring an unidentified number. A battle broke out and continued from the afternoon until shortly before sunset.

According to the paper, fighting ended after intervention from a local official of the Socialist party. The report adds that a Houthi spokesman accused the Yemeni authorities of arming Salafi [ie Islah] hardliners against them.

Early on Tuesday, an army vehicle was ambushed in the adjacent Saada province and a colonel was killed along with two bodyguards. The attack has been blamed on Houthi rebels and may be a reprisal for the death sentences passed on seven Houthi supporters earlier this month in connection with previous attacks.

In June, nine foreigners were kidnapped in Saada – apparently by Houthi rebels. Three were found dead shortly afterwards. The others (five Germans and a Briton) are still missing.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 July 2009