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Yemen Shiite rebels overrun crumbling tribal strongholds

SANAA--iite Huthi rebels have overrun strongholds of powerful tribes in northern Yemen, witnesses said Sunday, in a major advance following weeks of combat that have left scores dead.

The rebels have been pushing out from their stronghold in the mountains of the far north to other areas nearer the capital to expand their hoped-for autonomous unit in a promised federal Yemen.

The Huthis seized the town of Huth and Khamri village — the seat of the Hashid tribal chief, as tribal defense lines crumbled, local sources and witnesses said.

The Huthis “completely took over the regions of Huth and Khamri,” rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam told AFP by telephone.

Tribal chief sheikh Hussein al-Ahmar ordered his fighters to evacuate his family's farm in Khamri and set it ablaze, witnesses said, adding that the tribesmen have retreated to neighboring areas.

Scores have been captured by the advancing rebels, they added.

The violence in Amran province dates back to Jan. 5, and dozens of people have been killed in the fighting, including 60 on Friday alone.

Hashid tribesmen on Friday recaptured areas lost to the rebels earlier in the week, but the battle lines have shifted back and forth, according to local sources.

The capture of Khamri represents a severe blow to the powerful Ahmar clan, which leads the Hashid.

Divisions within the Hashid tribe could be behind the defeat, sources said, pointing out that some have sided with the Huthis.

The division is a result of an ongoing dispute between the Hashid chief sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also belongs to the vast Hashid tribe.

Ahmar had sided with nationwide Arab Spring protests that forced Saleh to step down in February 2012 after 33 years in power.

In addition to taking on the northern tribes, the Shiite Huthis have also been battling hard-line Sunni Salafists who established religious schools in parts of the north.

The Huthis have accused the Salafists of bringing foreign extremists into their region.

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