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SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen began the trial in absentia Monday of a leader of the Shi'ite rebels in the north of the country, accusing him of spying for a foreign power.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh said earlier this month he was determined to crush the revolt by Zaidi Shi'ite Muslims in Saada and Amran provinces.
On trial is Yahya al-Houthi, a parliamentarian who left Yemen three years ago and is based in Germany. His brother is Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the rebels' military leader in Yemen.
Yahya al-Houthi was charged with "participation in an armed gang that ... carries out killings, explosions, destruction, looting and espionage in favour of a foreign country and planning to assassinate a number of figures including the American ambassador in Sanaa."
No country was named, but government officials have said Iranian media support the rebels and Saleh has suggested Iranian religious figures provide them with funding.
The court is expected to appoint a lawyer to represent Houthi. Earlier this month 12 rebels were sentenced to death for membership of a terrorist organisation, after being captured last year in fighting in an area only 30 km (19 miles) north of the capital Sanaa.
Later Monday, a provincial official in Haja province said Yemen had seized a boat carrying weapons believed to be destined for the northern Shi'ite rebels and detained its Iranian crew, but central government officials declined immediate comment.
"The five crew members are being questioned. They are Iranians," said the official in Haja, which borders Saada province, site of most of the fighting between government forces and the rebels.
Iran and Shi'ite allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq have called on Sanaa to end the fighting through negotiations.
The Zaidis first took up arms against the rule of veteran ruler Saleh in 2004, citing political, economic and religious marginalization by the Saudi- and Western-backed government.
The conflict intensified in August when the army unleashed Operation Scorched Earth. Aid groups, who have been given limited access to the northern provinces, say up to 150,000 people have fled their homes since 2004.
Saleh also faces a separatist movement in the south, and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, fears the instability will help al Qaeda launch more attacks there.
(Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Tim Pearce))

Reuters