"The political leadership has issued orders to security and local officials as well as tribal leaders in Saada to convince the followers of Husain Badr al-Din al-Huthi to cease fire, to protect the souls of the innocent residents of the region," said a local official.

 

Earlier Yemeni army tanks and helicopters pounded Shia strongholds in the north, killing at least 36 people, officials and fighters' sources said.

 

Clashes

 

Fighting broke out late on Friday in the northern area of Nishur after fighters tried to attack an army camp. Ten soldiers and six fighters died in the battle, an official said. 

 

Clashes spread close to Saada province on Saturday, killing at least 20 fighters, fighters' sources said. It was the latest in a series of clashes between government forces and followers of slain al-Huthi. Local sources said the government was using tribal leaders to mediate the fighters' surrender. 

 

Al-Huthi, an al-Zaidi Shia Muslim leader who founded a group called Believing Youth, was killed last September after two months of clashes with security forces in which at least 200 fighters and state troops had died.

 

Yemeni security sources have blamed al-Huthi's father, Shaikh Badr al-Din, for the new round of violence which has killed at least 54 state troops and fighters since it broke out in late March in the northern Saada province and surrounding areas of Nishur, al-Shafaah and al-Rizamat.

 

Iranian connection

 

Yemen says al-Huthi's armed group is allied to Iran and is trying to overthrow the government, install a Shia religious rule, and is preaching violence against the United States and Israel at mosques. The group is not linked to al-Qaida.

 

The authorities have detained about 800 suspected followers and have closed many religious schools run by al-Huthi's followers, saying they are illegal.

 

Yemen has joined the US-led "war on terrorism" since the 11 September 2001 attacks. It has cracked down on al-Qaida-linked fighters after attacks at home, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing and the 2002 attack on the French supertanker Limburg.