Sunni al-Qaida militants and Shi'ite Muslim rebels have fought a bloody battle in central Yemen, tribal sources said on Wednesday, amid fears of worsening sectarian tension in the impoverished Arabian country.
Thirty Shi'ite rebels and 18 Sunni fighters and their tribal allies were killed in the clashes, the tribal sources told Reuters. Shi'ite Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa on September 21 and their forces have fanned out to Yemen's west and center since then.
Al-Qaida in Yemen's Twitter page said it fought the rebels with light weapons and demolished their homes in the city of Radda in al-Bayda province over the course of several hours on Tuesday, an account confirmed by local tribesmen.
The statement did not mention any casualties on its side, which the tribal sources put at 18 among the militants and tribal gunmen fighting along with the group.
In a separate incident, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for an attack on an army checkpoint elsewhere in al-Bayda province which killed five soldiers, the fighters and security sources said.
Radda, with a population of 60,000, has long been a stronghold of al-Qaida, which includes many fighters from local tribes who are up in arms over the new presence of the Houthi rebels in the mainly Sunni-populated region.
The northern-based Shi'ite Houthi established themselves as power brokers in Yemen last month by capturing Sanaa against scant resistance from the weak administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who appears not to have a full grip on the country's fractious military.
Houthi forces have since advanced into central Yemen and taken on Sunni tribesmen and al-Qaida militants, who regard the Houthis as heretics. Fighting has flared in several provinces, alarming neighbor Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter.
The United Nations Security Council in February authorized U.N. sanctions against anyone who obstructs Yemen's political transition or commits human rights violations and recently said it was ready to blacklist specific individuals.
Diplomats said U.N. experts were preparing reports for the council's Yemen sanctions committee on five people: former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down in 2012 after mass street protests, his son and three Houthi leaders.
“We're looking to move ahead with sanctions on at least three individuals,” said a senior council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Anyone designated by the council would be subject to a travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo.