Saturday, 3 October 2009

Yemen war continues

As the conflict in Yemen intensifies, attention is turning to the growing number of civilian casualties, reports Nasser Arrabyee

It has been 50 days since the so-called Scorched Earth operation was launched by Yemeni government troops on Al-Houthi Shia rebels in the north of the country, so far without obvious results.

While battles have intensified, with hundreds being killed and injured and thousands fleeing their homes, the rebels themselves claim that they have not started "the real war yet", and have hurled threats that this will "go beyond the government's imagination" when they do so.

For the Yemeni government's part, this has said that it will defeat the rebels even if it takes a matter of years to do so.

"We will not backtrack, so let the battles continue for five or six years, the war will not stop," Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said at a ceremony held last Saturday to mark the 47th anniversary of the country's 26 September Revolution.

"Go ahead. Do not stop," chanted attendees at a celebration attended by state officials, politicians, diplomats and NGO representatives held at the country's War College.

Saleh said that the Al-Houthi rebellion was part of a "war" against the revolution that had overthrown what he described as the "reactionary, backward, clerical, racial and tyrannical nature" of Zaidi-Shia clerical rule in 1962.

He also called on Yemenis to line up behind his policy of ending the Al-Houthi rebellion and the Al-Qaeda insurgency in the country.

Unlike during previous rounds of the rebellion, which started in mid-2004, Saleh has been keen to attend the funerals of senior officers killed in battle, and he has announced that a special department to care for the families of those killed will be set up in the presidential office.

As president, Saleh is also commander-in-chief of the Yemeni armed forces.

Saleh also said that he expected the cost of treating the impacts of the war to be much higher than the 10 billion Yemeni rials ($50 million) estimated for reconstruction efforts at the end of the fifth round of the rebellion in July 2008.

He said that the rebels aimed to restore the clerical rule of the Zaidi imams overthrown during the 1962 Revolution, though the rebels themselves have denied this, saying that such "accusations about the imamate are just part of the media war and are aimed at misleading public opinion."

"We are not asking for positions. We are asking for rights and justice," the rebel group said in a statement on its website.

The Yemeni government, which faces increasing secessionist sentiment in the south and growing Al-Qaeda insurgency elsewhere in the country, has international and regional support for ending the rebellion.

The foreign ministers of the US, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Jordan and Iraq in a meeting with their Yemeni counterpart on the margins of the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York issued a joint statement supporting what they called the unity, security and stability of Yemen.

Despite the government's efforts, however, fierce battles continue between government troops and the rebels, and as they do so the humanitarian situation in the country is getting worse.

Some international relief agencies working in Yemen have warned of a "humanitarian crisis" in the country if a ceasefire is not agreed soon, since food and other forms of assistance are running out and there is increasing difficulty in reaching the thousands of people displaced by the conflict.

Some 70 displaced families stranded for two weeks at the Alab Crossing in the far north of Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia appealed on Tuesday to President Saleh to coordinate with the Saudi authorities to allow them to enter Saudi territory, where they said they had relatives who would help them.

"About 150 women and children are staying in a mosque in the Alab area, and the men are sleeping outside without even blankets," said Ahmed Hadi Sabhan from the Bakem area.

No relief organisations have thus far been able to reach areas inside Saada, such as Bakem in the far north of the Saada province, because the rebels are blocking the main road in Harf Sufyan, where the fiercest battles are continuing.

More than 60,000 people have thus far been displaced by the conflict, the latest round of which erupted on 10 August. UN agencies estimate the total number of those displaced during the conflict's first round in 2004 at 150,000.

If the northern neighbour of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, cooperates by allowing relief organisations to go through its territory, the humanitarian situation would get better, and reports said on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had indeed agreed to cooperate in helping those displaced.

For its part, the Yemeni government has called on relief organisations working in Yemen to go directly to the refugee camps and assist the displaced, threatening to withdraw accreditation to agencies that make what it described as "media noise" rather than helping those affected by the conflict.

"Some NGOs are just making media noise, and we will withdraw the licences of these organisations if they do not come down to the field to help us," said Abdel-Karim Rase, the Yemeni minister of health and chairman of the ministerial committee coordinating relief efforts.

Meanwhile, a government-supported popular committee was formed on Tuesday to collect blood donations for injured soldiers.

According to Zaid Ali Hajar, chairman of the committee, this was due to launch its work on Wednesday in Al-Sabeen Square in the capital Sanaa. The first stage of the work would focus on blood donations, while following stages would include other forms of donation for both soldiers and the displaced.

However, it seems that civilians are now being used by both sides for media purposes, drawing the attention of the international community and relief agencies to the conflict in Yemen.

While the leader of the rebels has appealed to the international community, claiming that those affected by the conflict are not receiving assistance or protection, for its part the government has accused him of shedding crocodile tears, describing him as "a criminal claiming to be a victim".

"The criminal Al-Houthi should realise there is no future before him but to accept the government's five conditions for stopping the war. The rebels will be brought to justice sooner or later, and the fate of the criminal Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi will not be better than that of his slain brother Hussein," the Yemeni government said in a statement.

The rebel leader has claimed that government aircraft used in the conflict have been launching round-the-clock air strikes at areas occupied by women and children.

For its part, the government has said that the rebels are using civilians as "human shields".

Nine people were executed last week in the Marran area on the orders of the rebel leader Al-Houthi, when they had only been trying to find asylum from the conflict, the government said.

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