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Al Qaida, Houthi Rebels Push Yemen Toward Sectarian Conflict

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Yemen, where there has been intense fighting in the capital, Sanaa. Shiite rebels have been clashing with government forces. They reportedly broke into the presidential palace and shelled the president's house. Tonight, a rebel leader gave a televised address saying the assault was intended to force concessions from the president, who is a close U.S. ally. The fighting threatens U.S. efforts to stabilize Yemen and to fight al-Qaida there. Earlier today, we reached reporter Iona Craig in London. She recently returned from four years in Yemen, and she told us about the rebel group called the Houthis.

IONA CRAIG: They were created as a movement in 2004 and since then have been calling for greater autonomy from Saada in the north. And for the last year, really, have been pushing south towards the capital and taking territory until they got to Sanaa, took control of the city in September last year.

CORNISH: And we can make the distinction here that these rebels are not associated with the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, right?

CRAIG: Oh, no, absolutely not. They're enemies. Actually, what we've seen since the Houthis came in Sanaa in September if then after that they launched a major campaign against al-Qaida in the province of Bayda (ph). And it's also seen a sharp increase in attacks by al-Qaida targeting the Houthis and now trying to push Yemen into a sectarian conflict, which there is really no great history of in Yemen.

CORNISH: What's known about what's happening there right now? We mentioned earlier that the presidential palace is reportedly overrun.

CRAIG: Yes, certainly, and what happened was on Monday this - clashes started in the southeast of the city, which is around the area of the presidential palace. Although, it's important to remember that the president doesn't live there. He's actually living in the president's residence, which is in the west of the city, but there was heavy fighting there for over 10 hours on Monday. I think the situation was certainly very confusing because the Houthis are essentially a plainclothes militia. But since they took control in September of Sanaa, they have started to be integrated into the army.

So you would have had plainclothes militiamen fighting those in military uniform, but some of the military uniforms were also being worn by the Houthis. So it's a very confusing situation when these clashes started, who was loyal to who and even who was fighting who. There was a cease-fire at the end of the day on Monday, but then that fighting started again briefly on Tuesday afternoon. And, certainly, it seems that it centered around the presidential palace again, but there was also reports of clashes near to President Hadi's house, which, as I mentioned, was in the west of the city. Things then settled down again after that, but this is a very fragile situation on the ground at the moment and people are extremely nervous.

CORNISH: What does this mean for the relationship with the U.S. in terms of being able to conduct a campaign against al-Qaida and the al-Qaida threat coming from Yemen?

CRAIG: Well, I think this problem really stems from the issues over the political transition. And the biggest problem is with it, it hasn't really addressed those issues, and so now we have political instability. We have a very weak president. The Houthis are the greatest fighting force and without political security you can't have security around the country to prevent groups like al-Qaida operating. So it impacts the security of the whole country when you don't have political stability.

CORNISH: That's Iona Craig. She's reported from Yemen for the last four years. She spoke with us from London. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CRAIG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.