UN envoy presses Yemen rebel leader for new talks with govt

Saada (Yemen) (AFP) - The UN envoy to Yemen held talks Wednesday with Shiite rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Huthi in a fresh effort to end the country's political crisis, as deadly fighting intensified north of Sanaa.

Jamal Benomar flew to the rebel stronghold of Saada in an unexpected visit after failure to hammer out a deal between President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and rebels seeking greater political clout.

The talks "aim to restart negotiations that have stalled" in Sanaa, said a source from the rebels, whose supporters have camped out across and around the capital for weeks.

His visit comes as tensions run high in Shamlan, on the capital's northern outskirts, where deadly clashes between the Shiite Huthi rebels and pro-government tribesmen, Sunni Islamists and troops have raged since Monday.

Several explosions rocked the area overnight, according to residents, adding that rebels bombed several buildings belonging to Al-Islah party.

Among them were the residence of a local leader and a Sunni religious school, residents said.

At least 32 people were killed in clashes there Wednesday between rebels, on the one hand, and tribesmen and supporters of the Sunni Al-Islah (Reform) Party, a security source said.

The Red Crescent "pulled 20 bodies from the rubble of a building and 12 others from the streets," the source said.

The toll, which could not be independently confirmed, takes the figure for two days of fighting to at least 43 people, tribal and medical sources said.

Meanwhile, the army has reinforced its positions around Shamlan to prevent rebels advancing towards the capital's centre, only seven kilometres (four miles) away.

Troops set up new checkpoints near the site of the clashes, according to tribal sources and residents.

The clashes started after the rebels set up a new protest camp Monday close to an army barracks in Hamdan, where Shamlan is located.

It was the eighth armed protest camp the rebels have set up in the Sanaa region since they launched their campaign on August 18.

The rebels had earlier rejected an overture by Hadi in which he offered to name a new premier and reduced a controversial hike in fuel prices -- two of the core demands by the rebels.

The Zaidis, to whom the Huthi rebels belong, are a minority in mainly Sunni Yemen but are the majority community in the northern highlands, including the Sanaa region.

Analysts say they are trying to establish themselves as the top political force in those regions.