Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Northern ceasefire under increasing strain

Source: IRIN

A nine-month-old ceasefire agreed by the government and Houthi-led Shia rebels in northern Yemen is being undermined by sporadic clashes between the rebels and pro-government tribesmen, and delays to the full implementation of the accord.

Yemen's northern Saada Governorate has suffered six rounds of conflict since 2004 between government forces and the rebels, which displaced an estimated 270,000 people.

A truce in February brought an end to six months of heavy fighting, followed by an agreement between the two sides in August in Qatar.

The Qatar-sponsored deal stipulated that all Houthi prisoners would be moved to Saada governorate in preparation for their release.

In return, the rebels were to return captured military equipment. Neither condition has been met.

Mohammed Abdulhamid, a tribal sheikh from Ibb Governorate, some 200km south of the capital, Sanaa, believes neither side is serious. "More than six agreements had been reached, but none of them held for long," he told IRIN.

The truce also calls for the opening of roads closed by the rebels, but there are reports of frequent ambushes despite the ceasefire.

"The rebels are targeting those citizens believed to be loyal to the government," Dhaifullah Sulaiman, a Saada local council member, told IRIN, adding that attacks were particularly common in the eastern part of the governorate bordering on al-Jawf Governorate.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdussalam said the government had failed to make good its promise to release all detained fighters under a general amnesty announced by President Ali Saleh in May to mark the 20th anniversary of Yemen's unification.

"Only a few hundred were released," he said.

In a statement he also accused the government of not making progress "on other issues, such as the case of vanished people, reconstruction, compensation, stopping the campaign of arrests, and the arming of militias".

The pro-government groups "do not hesitate to kill our women and children", he added.

Tareq al-Shami, spokesman of the ruling General People's Congress, has accused Houthis of regularly violating the February truce. "They refuse to lay down their arms. They refuse to stop intervening in affairs of the local authority," he said.

Lutf Nisari, a security official with the Interior Ministry, said the government had released all rebels who were eligible for bail and agreed to return them to their villages. "Those who didn't bring bail [commercial guarantees from reputable businessmen and the endorsement of senior sheikhs] will remain in detention."

Under Qatari mediation a local committee made up of tribal leaders and eminent figures has been formed to observe ceasefire compliance by both sides.

With secession unrest in the south expanding, Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee believes there is stronger political will than before from within the government to end the conflict in the north. But there has been a potentially dangerous delay over the payment of compensation to civilians whose homes were damaged in the fighting, which is linked to the peace process.

The government's Saada Reconstruction Fund has estimated that 16,000-17,000 families have had their homes and farms damaged since 2004 in Saada and Amran governorates.

It began making payments to 1,100 families in August, but progress has been slow. The government has put the cost of fighting from August 2009 to February this year at US$850 million. [ ]

Reconstruction needs a huge amount of money but "the government is poor," Arrabyee told IRIN. "In the event citizens don't receive the compensation pledged by the government, they will see the government as weak and the base of Houthi support will expand."

Mohammed al-Emad, Saada local council secretary-general, said: "The fund is in urgent need of financial support from donor states and organizations to fulfil its financial obligations."

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