Supporters of the Yemeni government and its opponents held huge rival rallies Friday in Sanaa, where tensions escalated as Shiite Huthi rebels vowed to step up anti-government protests.
Outside the capital, clashes between Huthi rebels and loyalist tribes backed by government forces have killed at least 22 people since Thursday, tribal sources said.
Tens of thousands of Shiite rebels, also known as Zaidis or Ansarullah, gathered with supporters for the weekly Friday prayers along the airport road, where they have been demonstrating for weeks.
After the prayers, organisers called for further action against the government, which the Huthis accuse of corruption and whose resignation they have been demanding.
The Shiite rebels have rejected overtures from President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to name a new prime minister, replace the government and reduce a disputed fuel price hike.
Taha al-Mutawakel, a member of Ansarullah’s politburo, called for “civil disobedience” and urged supporters to join in new protests on Sunday and Monday to keep up the pressure on the government.
“People want escalation,” protesters chanted, according to an AFP correspondent.
At the same time, supporters of the embattled government mobilised what appeared to be a much larger crowd for a rival rally and prayers on Sittin Street in western Sanaa.
The protesters chanted slogans of support for Hadi and denounced Huthi protests that have crippled the capital, an AFP correspondent reported.
“Listen to us Huthi: The Yemeni people believe in the republic,” they chanted.
The official Saba news agency said “millions” of Hadi supporters took to the streets in Sanaa and in other parts of Yemen on Friday.
The rebels, who have been camped inside and outside Sanaa for weeks, have dismissed as insufficient the 30 percent cut in the fuel price hike and pressed demands to end alleged corruption.
They have threatened to escalate their campaign against the government, which included briefly blocking main arteries in Sanaa on Wednesday.
– Fighting escalates
Zaidi fighters held protests throughout much of August to push for the government’s resignation.
They have also been fighting government forces and loyalist tribes in the north, where they have expanded their control beyond their traditional Saada stronghold.
In violence in Jawf province, north of Sanaa, rebels fought for control of roads linking Sanaa with the province of Marib.
Clashes rocked Ghayl and Majzar regions straddling Jawf and Marib, east of the capital, killing 17 Huthi rebels and five tribesmen, tribal sources said.
On Thursday, fighting intensified in the nearby area of Fardat Nahm, as rebels tried to seize control of the main Marib-Sanaa road.
Analysts say the rebels are trying to establish themselves as the dominant political force in the northern highlands, where Shiites are the majority community.
Yemen has been locked in a protracted transition since long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 after a deadly 11-month uprising.