By Elizabeth Arrott
28 October 2009
Yemen's Interior Ministry says it is questioning five Iranians found aboard a ship captured earlier this week off Yemen's western coast.
Local officials said weapons aboard the ship were destined for al-Houthi rebels, Zaidi Shi'ite followers of the late Malik al-Houthi who claim they are discriminated against in the majority-Sunni nation.
The rebels and Iran deny any ties.
As for the ship, Tehran first dismissed reports as a media lie. It now says the government charges are baseless.
In addition, Iran's PressTV broadcast reports accusing the Yemeni government of seeking outside help.
"A Yemeni official has reportedly met one of the top members of al-Qaida in Yemen," said the Iranian television presenter. "The two sides reportedly agreed that Saanaa will provide al-Qaida forces with light weapons."
Yemen's government denies turning to al-Qaida in the fight against the rebels.
The conflict, which began in 2004 but picked up in earnest this August, brings together a trinity of regional problems - poverty, extremism and sectarian divides. Add to that the competing interests of rival regional powers, Sunni Saudi Arabia along Yemen's northern border and Shi'ite Iran, plus the spectre of international terrorism, and Yemen's problems gain a wider interest.
U.S. officials worry that al-Qaida members, driven from Afghanistan, are trying to set up camp in Yemen, ancestral home to network leader Osama bin Laden.
Yemen Post newspaper editor Hakim al-Masmari says the relationship between the government and al-Qaida has been murky in the past. But he says it is not at all clear there is any current partnership.
"Today, the government has no agreement with al-Qaida and their relationship is very fierce," said Hakim al-Masmari. "That is why over the last six months, over 100 al-Qaida members have been imprisoned."
Al-Masmari says that relations among the rebels are not even straightforward.
"They are people who are against the government due to certain issues, either because the government raided their houses during previous wars and that was the cause of family members being killed, so they are fighting along with the Houthi just to go against the government, not for love of Houthi himself," he said.
Perhaps the clearest issue in this conflict is its victims. Aid groups say as many as 150,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, many of them seeking refuge in remote camps near the Saudi border.