SANAA, Yemen — Shiite rebels and Sunni militiamen battled in Sanaa for a second day Friday in battles that have killed at least 120 people and have shaken the Yemeni capital with thousands fleeing their homes. The violence raises fears that this chronically unstable country could be dragged into the sort of sectarian conflicts that have plagued other nations in the region.
Yemen has had years of turmoil and division, particularly a longtime battle with perhaps the most dangerous branch of the al-Qaida terror network, separatist uprisings in the south and political upheaval that overthrew a longtime autocrat, all on top of deep poverty and tribal tensions.
But throughout, it had largely been spared Shiite-Sunni hatreds like those that tore apart Syria and Iraq. Just under half the population is Shiite, but they almost all belong to a unique version of Shiism — Zaydi — which is seen as very close to Sunni Islam. The two communities have long been intertwined in the political elite and military. For example, the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in 2012, was a Zaydi but most of his political alliances were with Sunnis.
In the past months, however, the Shiite rebels known as the Hawthis have become one of the country's most powerful players. They surged from their stronghold in the north, taking a string of cities and have fought their way to the capital, Sanaa. Their critics accuse them of being allied with Shiite-led powerhouse Iran and of seeking to grab power in Yemen or carve out a Shiite enclave in the north, claims the movement denies.
Their main opponents have been Sunni Muslim hardliners — militias and army units allied with the Islah party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Yemen, or tribal fighters sympathetic with the Brotherhood or al-Qaida.
The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, an ally of the United States, appears largely caught in the middle between the two forces. Meeting with foreign diplomats on Friday, Hadi described the Hawthis' escalation in the capital as a "coup attempt aimed at toppling the state."
The United Nations has been trying to mediate a political deal between Hadi and the Hawthis, who say they seek economic reforms and a new government. There has been talk for days of an imminent deal, even as both sides have built up forces in the capital.
Upon his return from the Hawthis' northern stronghold in Saada on Friday night, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, said in a statement that he spent 10 hours with the group's leaders during which "we tried to bridge the gap between parties."
Even if an agreement is reached, "the hatreds are now running deep because of the killings and the destruction between Sunnis and Zaydis could develop into sectarian violence," said Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid, a Sanaa-based political analyst. "Hawthis speak as if they are representing all Zaydis, while Muslim Brotherhood presents itself as speaking for the Sunnis. They are playing with fire."
Hawthi fighters on Thursday launched an assault on a Sunni hardliner stronghold in the capital, Iman University, which is seen as a breeding ground for militants. It is run by hard-line cleric Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who is considered by Washington to be a "specially designated global terrorist." On Friday, the Hawthis attacked the nearby headquarters of state TV, trying to storm the building, which the night before they hit with mortars, witnesses said.
"Every minute, there is something rattling or bombing, either rocket-propelled grenades or machine guns. The wall hangings fell down. The house was shaking with every explosion," Ammar Ahmed, who lives near the university, said of fighting overnight.
Bloodied bodies lay in the streets next the charred vehicles in front of the university, said another resident of the area, Ahmed Ibrahim.
At least 120 people, predominantly fighters from either side, were killed over the past 24 hours, according to medical officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Troops at a key intersection prevented the Hawthis from approaching the airport, north of the capital. However, the civil aviation agency said most foreign airlines had suspended flights to Sanaa for 24 hours because of the security situation.
The fighting is the latest chapter of Yemen's turmoil. The impoverished Arabian nation has long faced the threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. has been working with the government for years to fight the militants, who at one point in 2011 took over several southern cities until they were driven out the following year.
It went through political upheaval starting in 2011, when Arab Spring-style protests erupted against Saleh. After months of clinging to power, Saleh was eventually forced out but through a deal that gave him immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down and gave his party a share in the government and the parliament. The deal left Hadi, his successor, struggling with a fragmented military and government permeated by Saleh loyalists who have often undermined him.
Hadi has been trying to lead wide scale reforms to reshape and decentralize Yemen's political system by creating six regions that would be given greater powers to satisfy the various divisions in the country.
In past weeks, Hadi largely turned a blind eye or implicitly backed the advances by the Hawthis, since the rebels were defeating Sunni Islamists, who are traditional powers that have put pressure on Hadi.
But then the Hawthis launched a protest campaign in Sanaa, setting up sit-in encampments in several parts of the capital. They tapped into discontent with Hadi's government, which earlier this year lifted fuel subsidies, sparking a leap in gas prices, and has been widely criticized as too slow in bringing political and economic change.
Saleh's party has in recent weeks shifted to ally with the Hawthis — an ironic change given that Saleh's government battled the Hawthis for years and often used hardline Sunni fighters against the rebels.
The Hawthis first emerged in the 1990s as a movement pushing to revive the Zaydi identity. Its opponents believe it wants to re-establish a Zaydi religious state in the north that existed until the 1960s, under the rule of an "imam," or spiritual leader.
From 2004, the Hawthis fought a series of civil wars, but the fighting was largely contained to the area around its main stronghold in the north, Saada. The last war ended with a 2010 ceasefire, but during the political turmoil of the anti-Saleh uprising, the Hawthis took total control of the Saada region.
Analysts say that Saudi Arabia, which wields powerful influence in Yemen, also initially appeared to be happy to see the Hawthis battle the Muslim Brotherhood, which the kingdom views now as a bitter enemy. But now Saudis have raised fears over the rebels' advance on Sanaa.
In a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Saudi writer Tareq al-Homayed called the Hawthis a tool of Iran to spread its influence. He warned that the Hawthis could capture Sanaa at any time and said Saudi Arabia must have a plan to ensure that "all of Yemen does not fall into the hands of the Hawthis and Iran."
Michael reported from Cairo.