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Sun 27 Sep 2009 02:15 AM

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Yemen ready to fight Shiite rebels for 'years'

President vows to fight on but says hostilities could end if the rebels agree a ceasefire.

Yemen's government is ready to fight Shiite rebels in the mountainous north for "years", the president vowed on Saturday, though he also said hostilities could end if the rebels agree a ceasefire."We will continue the battle for five or six years. We will not backtrack, we will not stop," Ali Abdullah Saleh said at a celebration to mark the anniversary of the 1962 revolution that overthrew the Zaidi Shiite imamate and established the republic.

"If the rebels abided by the six points (of the truce), we do not want war. It is a war that was imposed on us," he said to cheering crowds shouting "No" and urging him to continue the war.

Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes since August 11 when the government began its "Scorched Earth" offensive against the Zaidi rebels, also known as Huthis.

Clashes between soldiers and rebels continued overnight and on Saturday, with eight Huthis and four soldiers killed in Harf Sufyan in the Amran province while 15 rebels were killed and an army tank was destroyed in clashes in Saada, the rebel's stronghold, local officials said.

Army fighter jets pounded rebel positions in the suburbs of Saada city and some parts of Harf Sufyan, the officials said.

The government has offered the rebels a truce but is demanding they "respect the ceasefire and the opening of roads, evacuate their positions and free captured civilians and soldiers."

Two separate ceasefires have lasted only a few hours before fighting erupted again.

"It is a vicious war, a guerrilla war. We are facing a war of rebellion and destruction. If it were a systematic war, the matter would have been settled," Saleh said.

He called on political groups in Yemen to stand united to "support the army in its war against the rebels" whom the government say want to restore the Zaidi Shiite imamate.

The imamate is a form of clerical rule that was overthrown in a republican coup in 1962 that sparked eight years of civil war.

The government accuses the rebels of being backed by Iran. The rebels deny the charge and allege Sanaa has brought in Saudi warplanes to support the army.

The UN has warned that food supplies are running out at its camps for displaced people. It estimates 55,000 people have fled their homes since the latest fighting erupted nearly six weeks ago.

"The continuation of hostilities, the failure of the truce and the closure of roads has prevented humanitarian agencies from coming to the aid of the displaced," UN spokeswoman Laure Chedraoui told AFP a few days ago.

"Foodstuffs for tens of thousands of refugees... are being depleted," she said.

Saleh said the government is committed to providing aid and support to the displaced people and called on international aid agencies to continue their assistance to the civilians.

"We have earmarked tens of millions (of rials) to fix the harm that resulted from this current war," he said in his Saturday speech.

The government accuses the rebels of hindering the work of aid agencies by blocking essential roads and taking civilians as human shields.

The Zaidis, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are a minority in mainly Sunni Yemen but form the majority community in the north. President Saleh is himself a Zaidi.