At least ten men from local militias and from the Yemeni army were killed on Saturday in clashes with Houthi fighters who were trying to seize a road that links the capital Sanaa with oil-rich provinces, local government officials said.
The Houthis have fought against the Yemeni government for years, demanding more power for their Zaydi Shi’ite Muslim sect in the predominantly Sunni country.
Starting two weeks ago, the Houthis massed tens of thousands of supporters on the outskirts of Sanaa to press the government to quit and to restore fuel subsidies.
The standoff has raised fears for the stability of Yemen, an ally of the United States and neighbor of major oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
On Saturday, Houthi fighters tried to gain control over a road that links Sanaa with the southern provinces of Marib, Shabwa and Hadramout, where the majority of Yemen’s oil supplies are located.
“The Houthis were planning to close the road from the provinces to the capital in order to stop the supply of fuel and cooking gas to the population in most provinces of the country, but the military sent reinforcements to stop them,” one of the local official in Sanaa told Reuters.
He said militias captured 11 Houthi fighters on intersections of the road and that they were armed with guns and rocket launchers. The captured men were handed over to the military, the officials said.
Yemen’s Gulf neighbors and Western partners, which helped the country stave off civil war after an uprising in 2011 that ended in the ousting of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have watched the dispute between Sanaa and the Houthis with mounting concern.
Last week, they urged the Houthis to stop trying to gain territory by force and to engage in a political transition process.
The government’s decision last month to raise fuel prices was part of efforts to rein in its budget deficit and helped the impoverished Arab state to conclude talks on a $560 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Last year, the country spent about $3 billion on the fuel subsidies, nearly a third of all state revenues.
The Houthis have also pitched tents on a road leading to the airport near to key ministries. Their protests have tapped into wider public anger among Yemenis over the subsidy cuts.
A previous attempt to cut subsidies, in 2005, led to unrest in which about 20 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The reform was canceled.