Sixty Islamist extremists, including four Russian citizens, have been killed in clashes in northern Yemen in the past several weeks, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. Russia tracks its citizens who travel abroad for training in Muslim seminaries, but it was unclear why Moscow was announcing the dozens of deaths in Yemen.The Ministry said the deaths came in recent fighting between ultraconservative Salafi Muslims and Houthi Shiite Muslims in the province of Saada since mid-November. On Tuesday, both sides agreed to a cease-fire brokered by opposition tribesmen, politicians and religious figures.
The Russian Embassy in Yemen counted 36 Russian citizens living in Saada — students at the Salafi-run Dar al-Hadith school for Islamic studies and their families.
“According to the information received, 60 radicals were killed, including four Russian citizens,” the ministry statement said, adding that Russian and Yemeni authorities are working to evacuate the remaining Russian citizens from the area.
Dar al-Hadith has long been a popular destination for foreign students. The Russian Embassy said the Russian students are there illegally, having bypassed regulations for leaving Russia.
Russia has millions of Muslim citizens, notably in the Caucasus republics that have been plagued by insurgent violence.
Tired of widespread poverty and a government perceived as corrupt and abusive, many Muslims from the Caucasus have traveled to the Middle East and South Asia to study with radical Islamic leaders who challenge the Kremlin-backed Muslim clerics at home.
In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on Russia’s Muslim leaders to join forces in an effort to keep young Muslims in Russia and quell recruitment by extremist groups abroad. In May, Alexander Khloponin, Medvedev’s envoy to the Caucaus region, said authorities were planning to closely monitor young people who go abroad to study Islam.
The Dar al-Hadith school, which has attracted students from around the world, was set up more than 20 years ago as a learning center to counter Shiite Islam in the area. Its funds often flow from Yemen’s neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia.
The tension between Salafis and the local Houthi Shiites escalated just as Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed in late November a U.S.-backed proposal crafted by powerful Gulf Arab neighbors, under which he is required to transfer power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
His critics accuse him of allowing security to unravel throughout parts of Yemen to support his argument that without him, al-Qaeda and Salafi militants would take control of the country.
In the months leading up to Saleh’s signing of the agreement, security forces appeared to have turned a blind eye to Salafis arming themselves and amassing in greater numbers in Saada province. Salafi preachers have also used the pulpit to argue that the killing of Houthi Shiites is an Islamic duty.
Salafism is a particularly hardline branch of Islam. But although some Salafis follow a militant ideology to which al-Qaeda members subscribe, the terror network operates separately. Al-Qaeda fighters have not attempted a cease-fire with Hawthi Shiites. Instead, leading al-Qaeda figures in Yemen have reportedly called on fighters in recent weeks to fight the Shiites.
Saleh’s government also fought a bloody and costly six-year war with Shiite rebels in Saada until a cease-fire agreement was reached early last year.