The conditions

The government's conditions included the rebels' withdrawal from all districts of Saada and mountainous sites and the return of military hardware they have seized from the army, the official Saba news agency said.

In depth

 

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Also among the conditions was a call for the rebels to clarify the fate of a German family of five and a British engineer taken hostage in Saada in June.

The six people were among a group of foreign hostages - seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean. They were abducted by armed men in Saada, where the rebels operate.

Three of them, two German women and a South Korean female teacher, were found dead two days after the abduction.

The rebels have denied holding any civilians.

The rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi rejected the six terms, saying that the government was seeking to "mislead the public opinion."

He called on the government to comply with the ceasefire agreement reached by the two parties in the Qatari capital Doha in June 2007.

The military offensive was ignited after the sect claimed to be gaining greater control of the northern Saada province, which borders Saudi Arabia, from government troops.

Yemeni forces have used air strikes, tanks and artillery in the recent offensive, described by officials as a determined attempt to crush the revolt.

Thousands displaced

The fighting has forced 35,000 of civilians to leave their homes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday.

The United Nations International Children's Fund (Unicef) and other UN aid bodies expressed serious concern about what they called a deteriorating situation in the north of the country, and described conditions as critical in some areas.

"It is crucial that we gain immediate access to them to provide them with the assistance they need"

Aboudou Karimou Adjibade, UNICEF

UNHCR said in Geneva it was appealing for a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape the fighting and enable aid workers to resume interrupted deliveries of humanitarian goods to the conflict zone.

"It is crucial that we gain immediate access to them to provide them with the assistance they need," said Aboudou Karimou Adjibade, Unicef representative in Yemen.

Previous clashes between government troops and rebels had already affected about 120,000 people, UN officials said.

The Rome-based UN World Food Program said on Friday it began distributing a one-month ration of cereals, pulses, vegetable oil, salt and sugar to 10,000 displaced people.

History of tension

The military offensive was ignited after the sect claimed to be gaining greater control of the northern Saada province, which borders Saudi Arabia, from government troops.

Unicef has expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Saada [AFP]
Fighting between the Houthis and the military has left hundreds of soldiers and fighters dead since 2004.

Tensions have been rising between the Houthis and the army in Saada since last July when Saleh declared the conflict over.

But despite attempts to start talks, sporadic fighting has continued and intensified.

In July 2008, Saleh said four years of intermittent fighting had ended and that dialogue should replace combat.

The authorities have accused the Houthis of trying to reinstall the rule of imams, toppled by a republican revolution in northern Yemen in 1962.

The fighters say they are defending their villages against government oppression.