SANAA, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Yemen rejected a ceasefire offer from Shi’ite rebels on Sunday and said fighting was continuing, as neighbouring Saudi Arabia accused the insurgents of mounting sniper attacks inside its territory. The conflict with the northern rebels, who complain of social, religious and economic discrimination in the southern Arabian state, has rumbled on since 2004, but intensified last year and drew in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is also struggling against al Qaeda and southern secessionists, and Western powers fear it could become a failed state.
The U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism chief was visiting Yemen on Sunday, state media reported, a week after Britain hosted a conference on how to stabilise the Arab world’s poorest country.
Yemeni soldiers clashed with rebels in the northern provinces of Malahidh and Saada, killing 20, including a leader responsible for training, state media reported on Sunday.
Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said on Saturday he was prepared to accept government conditions for a truce, days after he made a ceasefire offer to Saudi Arabia and said his fighters had withdrawn from Saudi territory. [ID:nLDE60T0DV]
But a government official said on Sunday: “The Houthi offer is rejected as it does not vow to end attacks on Saudi Arabia and because it sets as a condition an end to military operations (by the government) first.”
The rebels said they would accept five conditions set by Sanaa for a ceasefire that include the removal of rebel checkpoints, withdrawal of forces and clarification of the fate of kidnapped foreigners.
The government says the rebels must also return captured military and civilian equipment and stay out of local politics.
But the Houthis made no mention of the sixth condition, the ending of attacks on Saudi Arabia, which Sanaa added after Riyadh launched an assault against the rebels in November.
“This is a key demand we cannot make concessions on,” Tarek Ahmed al-Shami, a spokesman for Yemen’s ruling party, told Reuters.
Yemen would “see no obstacle” to ending its military operations if the rebels committed themselves to all six points, the National Defence Council said in a statement.
A Saudi military source said rebel snipers were still crossing the border into Saudi territory and exchanging fire with Saudi troops daily, nearly a week after the rebels said they would withdraw from Saudi land.
Saudi Arabia declared a full victory over the rebels on Wednesday.
The Yemeni Defence Ministry’s online newspaper said the rebels, known as the Houthis after the name of their leader, had opened fire on a refugee camp, killing a child and wounding two others. There was no response from the rebels to the claim.
Britain hosted talks in London last week where countries including the United States discussed ways to stabilise the Arabian Peninsula state, which grabbed the world’s attention after the Yemen-based regional command of al Qaeda claimed a bomb attempt on a U.S.-bound plane on Dec. 25.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, its foreign minister and other senior officials met Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, state media reported.
“They discussed counterterrorism and ways to cooperate between the United States and Yemen, especially in the military, security and development areas,” a senior official told Reuters.