SANA'A // Yemen's government yesterday rejected a truce offered by al Houthi rebels, who have been battling troops for three weeks in the north of the country, and vowed to extend a three-week offensive against the Shiite group. "What these elements have announced recently under the so-called peace plan has not come with anything new," said Yemen's Supreme Security Committee in a statement. The committee insisted that the al Houthis must accept last month's government peace proposal before the offensive would end.
"There were six conditions announced by the [government] before and [the rebels] have to stick to them all, without selection, to prove their intent of peace," the statement said. The al Houthi rebel group proposed their own peace plan to end the fighting late on Monday. "We announce an initiative to stop the war so that roads are opened, the presence of armed mobilisation ends and the situation returns to how it was before," said a statement issued by the rebel leader Abdel-Malik al Houthi.
According to Mohammed Abdulsalam, the rebels' spokesman, their plan also calls for the government to allow displaced people to return home. "We sent our initiative to the authorities and its success depends on their response," Mr Abdulsalam said in a statement. Mr Abdulsalam, who offered the peace initiative after 20 days of fierce fighting, did not give further details about the plan. The al Houthis had previously rejected the Yemeni government's six conditions.
The government's conditions for the truce include a rebel withdrawal from all districts, the removal of checkpoints and disclosure of the fate of kidnapped foreigners, which it blamed on the rebels. Nine foreigners were kidnapped in Sa'ada in June. The bodies of three were found three days later, while the rest are still missing. The government's conditions also require the al Houthis to return captured military and civilian equipment, hand over those behind the kidnapping and refrain from intervening in the state's local affairs.
Army troops have been pounding al Houthi bases in Sa'ada since August 11. The offensive has included artillery and missile strikes on rebel strongholds in the strategic heights overlooking the Saudi border. Dozens of rebels, civilians, troops and pro-government tribal militants have been killed in the past three weeks, and more than 100,000 have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Najeeb Ghalab, a political analyst and researcher at Sana'a University, said the rebels peace plan is a strategic move.
"This is a tactic that will enable the rebels to gather their nerves again following the severe pounding they have received. It also means that the al Houthis want to improve their image before the public - that they are considering the humanitarian situation of the displaced people. It might be a prelude for terrorist activities on a broad scale, for they know the government will stick to its six conditions," Mr Ghalab said.
"If they [the rebels] are serious about peace, they would have accepted the government conditions and showed their reserve about the item related to the foreigners kidnapping," Mr Ghalab said. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, vowed last month to crush and uproot the rebels while also renewing his government's ceasefire conditions to end the fighting, which has erupted intermittently since 2004. Last week, Mr Saleh said the operation would not stop before the rebels announce an "unconditional commitment" to the government peace plan.
He also renewed promises to cleanse all districts of Sa'ada of al Houthis in several weeks, which has been more difficult than expected. Abdulghani al Iryani, an independent political analyst, said it will be difficult to defeat the rebels with military might alone, but that the government needed to show its strength. "I do not think it is possible to eliminate the al Houthis. But I believe if the government has reasonable [objectives] in Sa'ada, they can be achieved in several weeks. But if they make their goals too ambitious, the situation will be different," Mr Iryani said.
"The government needed to demonstrate its strength and military power [to provide a deterrent]," he said. "However, the two sides will have to go back to peace [talks] as insurgencies are resolved by dialogue." Thousands have been killed and displaced since the insurgency began in 2004. The government accused Hussein al Houthi, the original rebel leader who was killed in 2004, of fomenting sectarianism and attempting to restore the Zaidi imamate in the north, which was overthrown in the 1962 revolution. The al Houthis oppose the government of Mr Saleh, even though he is a Zaidi.
Yemen also said on Monday it had summoned the ambassador of Iran to protest against Iranian media coverage of the fighting. Yemen has accused Iran and Libya of supporting the al Houthi rebels during the previous fights. Abubakr al Qirbi, Yemen foreign minister, on Monday accused Iranian media of bias toward the rebels and warned it could take unspecified steps in response. On their part, the al Houthis and Iran-owned media have accused Saudi Arabia warplanes of shelling the rebels in Sa'ada, which the Yemen government denied.
Saudi-owned media have accused Iran of funding the rebels since the fighting first broke out in 2004. Al Houthis, however, have denied these accusations and claim the government has ignored their needs and their rights to freely express their anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments. They say they want to practise their religious rituals freely. Both the government and the rebels continue to claim they have the upper hand on the ground. The ministry of defence said yesterday that many areas in Sa'ada have been pacified and showed people on television who it said were rebels captured during the fighting. It also denied reports that al Houthis captured military posts and tanks in the region and described al Houthi claims as "fabrications" to cover up losses.
On their part, the rebels said in statements sent to the press via e-mail they have been able to repel government attacks. The rebels displayed a video clip showing army personnel who surrendered expressing their sorrow for joining the army operations. It also showed a stockpile of weapons claiming they were captured from the army. Such reports, however, could not be independently verified as both Sa'ada and Harf Sufyan are closed to journalists. The bombardment of Sa'ada has intensified since Monday night, according to local reports.