DUBAI - Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen called on Monday for Gulf Arab military intervention to halt advances by Houthi fighters, a move that could draw neighbouring states into the country's deepening power struggle.

The monarchies of the Gulf back President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose forces have recently suffered reverses at the hands of Iranian-backed Houthis approaching his base in the southern port of Aden from the north. "We are requesting an intervention by the Gulf Shield forces to stop this Iranian-backed Houthi expansion," Yaseen told the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, referring to a military force of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

"We have expressed to the GCC, the United Nations as well as the international community that there should be a no-fly zone, and the use of military aircraft should be prevented at the airports controlled by the Houthis."

The Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in September, a blow to the state which widened splits in the army. The group initially shared power with Hadi but dissolved parliament last month.

Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors view their takeover as a coup and believe Iran is trying to build up its power in the region by backing armed proxies.

Speaking in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that Iran was trying "to sow sectarian strife" in the region and said Gulf Arab states would take steps to back Hadi. "If this issue is not solved peacefully, we will take the necessary measures to protect the region from their aggression," he told a news conference.

Houthi fighters clashed with armed opponents in south and central Yemen on Monday, residents and the Houthis said. An array of tribesmen, militiamen and army units loyal to Hadi are resisting the southward advance of the Houthis, in skirmishes that have escalated since the weekend. Houthi guerrillas backed by allied army units fought gun battles against tribesmen in Taiz province, residents said.

On its official Twitter account, the Houthis said their forces had repelled an attack by "terrorist partisans and mercenaries".

Militiamen and soldiers loyal to Hadi have built up a security belt on the approaches to Aden in recent days, placing tanks and artillery on mountaintops overlooking the frontlines with the Houthis.

Fighting also broke out between Houthi forces and tribal militiamen in the central provinces of al-Bayda and Mareb, killing at least 15 from both sides, local officials said.

The Houthi seizure on Sunday of Taiz city, Yemen's third largest, shocked opponents of the group there.

Hundreds of activists have set up a protest camp by a main army base loyal to Houthis in the city centre, and soldiers there opened fire on demonstrators and injured several, activists said.

UN warns of civil war

Events in Yemen are pushing the country “to the edge of a civil war,” the United Nations special envoy has warned, calling for all parties to resolve the escalating conflict peacefully as peace talks reach a stalemate.

Speaking to the UN Security Council emergency meeting via videolink, Jamal Benomar, who has tried to mediate the deepening conflict for several months, said that if immediate steps are not taken “the country will slide further into further violence and dislocation”.

“Emotions are running extremely high and, unless solutions can be found, the country will fall into further violent confrontations,” Benomar declared. “Events in Yemen are leading the country away from political settlement and to the edge of civil war.”

The situation in Yemen has been rapidly deteriorating since the country formed a new Government in November 2014 aimed at ending a period of political turbulence and bringing about a full transition towards democracy. Nonetheless, the country has continued to be plagued by violence and mass political demonstrations despite UN efforts to bring about a peaceful political resolution. Just over a month ago, Ban Ki-moon voiced serious concern about developments following the abduction by the opposition group Ansarallah of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s chief of staff and the resignation of the President and Prime Minister amid a takeover of the capital, Sana’a by secessionist Houthi militants.

At the same time, the Secretary-General has recently warned that “widespread and lethal” attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and escalating hostilities between AQAP and the Houthis have also pushed the country to the edge of civil war. These developments, coupled with a burgeoning humanitarian crisis which has enveloped an “astounding” 61 per cent of the population, now threaten regional and international peace and security, according to the secretary-general.