Yemen's new Shiite Muslim powerbrokers sent fighters towards an al Qaeda stronghold on Wednesday, raising the possibility of a showdown between the politically ascendant Houthi movement and the hardline Sunnis of the transnational militant network.
Witnesses said dozens of cars carrying armed Houthi fighters were seen arriving in the city of Ibb, bordering al-Bayda province, a bastion of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
AQAP, which views Shiites as heretics and Houthis as pawns of Iran's revolutionary Shiite theocracy, last week claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on a Houthi gathering in the capital Sanaa that killed at least 47 people.
That attack was seen as a sign of AQAP's anger at the Houthis' takeover of Sanaa on Sept. 21, a lightening assault that enabled the group to impose its will on the weak and fractured administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Residents said some Houthi fighters had gathered at the main stadium in Ibb, 150 km (90 miles) south of Sanaa.
"The governor and his aides received the armed men outside the city and entered with them," a provincial official told Reuters. Another convoy of several cars carrying Houthis were later seen on the outskirts of Taiz, a city 50 km south of Ibb.
There was no immediate word on the intentions of the Houthi fighters in Ibb. But they arrived hours after clashes between Houthis and fighters from an al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Sharia, killed at least 10 and wounded dozens in Radda in al-Bayda province.
HOUTHIS ENTER HODEIDAH
The intensity of the clashes reported by medical sources late on Tuesday, forced dozens of families to flee.
The Houthis, who hail from the northern highlands and claim to champion the interests of the Zaydi community which makes up a fifth of the 25 million population, appear determined to impose their authority outside the capital as well as in it.
On Tuesday they extended their control to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, deploying checkpoints and also taking control of the city's airport, apparently with the agreement of the police, local officials said.
Hodeidah is the second largest port in the Arabian peninsula nation after Aden, a southern city on the Gulf of Aden.
Also on Wednesday, residents and a local official said a drone strike hit a car carrying suspected al Qaeda militants in Shabwa province. The car was completely burnt and destroyed.
In a separate sign of the fragility of Yemen's embattled state, southern separatists seeking to split from the north set an ultimatum for the government to evacuate its soldiers and civil servants by Nov. 30.
The Southern Herak movement also asked foreign firms producing oil and gas in the region to halt exports immediately.
"The state of the south is coming and no power can stop us from achieving this," the statement said.
Any move to break away by the south would be watched closely by a war-scarred region critical to world oil supplies.
Yemen shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and flanks busy shipping lanes such as those in the strategic Bab El Mandeb strait west of Aden.
MOST OIL FROM THE NORTH
Southern Herak asked all companies operating in oil and gas to halt their exports until technicians appointed by the movement could oversee the process and revenues are placed in banks under the name of a new southern state.
Yemen is a small producer with proven oil reserves of about 3 billion barrels. In March U.S. authorities estimated Yemen's output at 100,000 barrels per day, mostly from the Marib-Jawf area in the north, with the rest from Masila in the southeast.
France's Total, the biggest foreign investor with activities in the south, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Herak statement capped several days of growing separatist activism triggered by the Houthis' capture of Sanaa.
Herak appears to have drawn inspiration from the Houthis' ability to dictate terms to Hadi and to outmanoeuvre a military establishment weakened by rifts, a spectacular rise to national importance for a once obscure rural political movement.
The Houthis ascent is just the latest blow to central authorities in Yemen, which have struggled to keep control since mass protests in 2011 forced its long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down.
Western and Gulf countries are worried that continued instability in Yemen could strengthen al Qaeda on the southern flanks of Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.