Thousands of Zaidi Shiite rebels marched through a provincial capital in northern Yemen on Friday to demand the resignation of the central government, which they accused of corruption, witnesses said.
With many toting assault rifles and accompanied by vehicles mounted with rocket launchers, they chanted "down with the corrupt government," as they paraded on the streets of Omran.
They were closely watched by a large number of troops and security forces, backed up by tanks and other armoured vehicles.
They also demanded the sacking of provincial governor Mohammed Hassan Dammaj, a member of the Al-Islah party, an alliance of Zaidi tribal notables and Sunni Islamists, as well as of General Hamid al-Qushaiby, commander of the army's 310th Armoured Brigade.
Last month, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and party leaders in Sanaa agreed to transform the restive country into a six-region federation as part of a political transition.
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The rebels, who complain that Yemen would be divided into rich and poor regions under the plan, have been trying to enlarge their zone of influence by pushing out from their mountain strongholds in the far north to areas closer to the capital.
In early February, they seized areas in Omran province, leaving more than 150 people dead and overrunning the home base of the Al-Ahmar clan, traditional leaders of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation and of the Islah party.
Military sources said their objective is to seize Omran city and, from there, lay seige to Sanaa.
Ironically, an army officer in Omran told AFP Friday that the rebels had been allowed in to the city to demonstrate after giving assurances that there would be no violence.
Friday's demonstration, which passed off peacefully, came a day after six rebels and two soldiers were killed in a firefight near Sanaa, as the rebels pressed southward.
That exchange came after days of clashes between the rebels, known as Ansarullah (Partisans of God), and tribesmen loyal to the Al-Ahmar clan, in which at least 22 people have been reported killed since the weekend.