SAN’A, Yemen (AP) - A Yemeni government minister accused Shiite rebels on Saturday of breaking a cease-fire, hours after it went into effect in an effort to let aid workers get food and medical aid to thousands of displaced civilians.
However, a spokesman for the rebels, Mohammed Abdel-Salam, denied that his group has resumed its fighting, and accused the government of "making up excuses to keep the conflict going."
A new round of fighting in a five-year insurgency in the country’s north flared up last month, displacing about 35,000 people from their homes, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Yemen - the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden - is an impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula and the fighting has raised fears that increased lawlessness could provide cover for al-Qaida militants who have sought sanctuary there.
On Friday, the government offered a unilateral cease-fire to the rebels, whom it portrays as religious fundamentalists supported by Iran, but did not say long it would last.
A Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said the rebels broke the cease-fire several hours after it took effect late Friday.
He said the rebels’ fresh attacks were repelled by army units in the mountainous areas of Saada and Amran provinces, bringing "great losses" to the rebels the arrest of two of their leaders.
Hmoud Abbad, Yemen’s minister of youth affairs, told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya Television that the rebels continued their assaults after the cease-fire announcement and that the authorities would fight back.
"Those insurgents and terrorist cannot commit to any deal," Abbad said. "The government and the armed forces have the responsibility to put an end to those terrorists ... and destroy this insurgency."
But the rebels denied the government had adhered to the ceasefire offer.
"The government is the one who broke the truce," said a statement from the rebels, emailed to The Associated Press. "We are peace seekers and we did not choose to fight, the war is being forced on us and we have been left no other choice but to defend ourselves."
It is difficult to verify either the government or rebel claims because authorities have cut off access to the area.
Tribal leaders say dozens of people - rebels and civilians - have been killed in recent weeks.
Maria Santamarina, an official of the World Food Program in Yemen, said the U.N. food agency’s teams stand ready to send supplies to the affected people.
"The distribution teams are waiting for a lull in the fighting to distribute the food," she said.