NEW YORK // Aid officials warn of the threats of dehydration, malaria and diarrhoea in northern Yemen's refugee camps as thousands of displaced highlanders escape fighting between rebels and government forces. Mounting violence between national troops and Houthi guerrillas has forced more than 35,000 tribespeople from their homes across the rugged, mountainous terrain around Sa'ada city in the past two weeks.
The UN warns that this latest round of fighting between disaffected adherents of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam and the government troops of Sunni-dominated Yemen has spawned a "dire and complex humanitarian emergency". Ann Veneman, the director of the UN's agency for children, Unicef, said aid workers are struggling to shelter, feed and safeguard the health of an ever-growing body of internally displaced people (IDPs).
"The ongoing conflict in Sa'ada has forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes at great risks to their lives and well-being," Ms Veneman said. "Children and women represent the majority of the displaced." Naseem ur Rehman, a Unicef spokesman in Yemen, described an "unprecedented flow of IDPs" that was stretching the capacity of government aid agencies, the UN and foreign charities, to their limits.
Relief workers have erected tents in newly built camps, providing everything from water sanitation kits and kitchenware to high-energy biscuits, but, according to Mr Rehman, the "management of these camps remains a very pressing issue". "One of our main concerns is the level of trauma and stress endured by these people," Mr Rehman said. "These women and children have experienced the sound of dropping bombs and we are providing them with psychosocial assistance.
"These are family-orientated, tribal people, and most of them want to go back to their homes, but until the security situation improves, that will not be possible." Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has vowed to "destroy this sedition" along the country's northern border with Saudi Arabia, deploying air strikes, tanks and artillery against battle-hardened Houthi guerrillas. Currently led by Abdul-Malek al Houthi, the rebels have fought national troops intermittently since 2004, accusing the government of corruption and seeking to restore the Zaidi imamate, which was overthrown in a 1962 coup.
Zaidis make up about 23 per cent of Yemen's population of 23 million and have peacefully coexisted with the Sunni majority for generations, although a Zaidi revivalism during the 1970s has seen tensions explode into violence. The defiant Houthi guerrillas claim to have seized rocket launchers and other weapons from state arsenals and brag about inflicting heavy casualties on government forces while repelling their attacks.
Yemeni officials have indicated that the rebels get financial support from Shiite-majority Iran, comparable to the Islamic republic's assistance to such Islamist groups as Hamas and Hizbollah. The Houthis retort that the government - with US and Saudi backing - is unfairly targeting Zaidis, forcing them to take up arms to defend their highland villages against "oppression". The fighting raises fears that increased lawlessness could provide cover for al Qa'eda militants who have sought sanctuary in the impoverished country.
This latest government offensive, dubbed Operation Scorched Earth, has spread combat beyond Sa'ada province into neighbouring Amran, to the south. Villagers have fled their homes across swathes of inhospitable terrain that remains inaccessible to relief agencies. "Some internally displaced people are displaced for the second or third time," said Claire Bourgeois, the UN's refugee chief in Yemen. "They were already living in precarious situations for months or even years and now they have to go through the drama all over again."
Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said lorries delivering aid to dehydrated refugees sweltering in the summer heat are frequently delayed because of bad roads, insecurity and checkpoints. The spokeswoman for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on Monday for a ceasefire between the warring foes or "any other possibility of getting some assistance to the civilian population". Yemeni officials say they will open a humanitarian corridor.
On Monday, aid workers from the UN's refugee agency's office in Dubai, began loading 25,000 blankets, 6,000 plastic sheets, 6,000 kitchen sets and 300 canvas tents aboard a boat that will reach Aden at the beginning of September. On Friday, the refugee agency asked donors for US$5 million (Dh18m) to help thousands of Yemenis, with the UN aid spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs, warning that the number of uprooted civilians could grow to 150,000.
Officials say fighting only worsens conditions for many of those in the peninsula's poorest country, which already experiences high malnutrition rates, with 46 per cent of under-fives underweight and 53 per cent suffering from stunting. "These conflicts have the worst impact on poor households and pushes them into deeper levels of poverty out of which it is very difficult to come out," Mr Rehman said. "People with money have moved out to Sana'a or other places - so it is the poor strata of the population which bears the brunt."