x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Battle rages on as Saudis and al Houthis take prisoners

As the battle between Saudi military forces and Yemeni rebels entered its fifth day, there were reports of captured fighters on both sides.

RIYADH // As the battle between Saudi military forces and Yemeni rebels entered its fifth day yesterday, there were reports of captured fighters on both sides. In an interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera television, a spokesman for the rebel al Houthis said his group had seized an undisclosed number of Saudi ground troops on the Yemeni side of the undemarcated, mountainous border. "We will carry out interviews with them [for the media] - they will be treated with respect," Mohammed Abdel-Salam told the television station by telephone, Reuters reported.

Saudi Arabia has not responded to the claim, but Saudi-owned media are reporting the capture of rebel forces. Al Arabiya television, which has a correspondent in the region near the fighting, reported that 100 Yemeni rebel fighters were captured on Saudi territory. The English-language daily Arab News cited an unidentified source saying that 50 rebels had been killed, 40 had surrendered "and many more have been arrested". Similar reports appeared in Al Riyadh newspaper. The claims are impossible to independently verify.

It is also not clear how the fighting is going to end. The Saudis said they were provoked into military action by the rebels, who infiltrated Saudi territory that day and attacked a border guard patrol, killing one and wounding 11. The attack spurred the Saudis into action, having watched the Yemeni government's inability to quash the rebellion by the Zaidi Shiite sect with growing impatience. Riyadh, as well as many western observers, are concerned that the government of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is becoming increasingly unable to cope with internal challenges and that, unless current trends are changed, Yemen will become ungovernable.

Besides the al Houthi rebellion, those challenges include a secessionist movement in the south, dire economic straits, and an increasingly active al Qa'eda franchise that only this week claimed responsibility for the ambush killings of five Yemeni security officers on Tuesday. In addition, Saudi Arabia is concerned that the longer the al Houthi rebellion festers, the more it could attract outside - specifically Iranian - intervention.

Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said there is "no evidence" to support the Yemen government's claim that Iran right now is directly supporting the al Houthi rebels, although it appears that private Iranian charities, encouraged by the Iranian government, have raised money for them. But if the al Houthi continue to resist militarily, Mr Alani added, there is a concern "the Iranians will look at [their cause] as a worthwhile investment".

The al Houthis take their name from their late leader, Hussein Badr Eddin al Houthi, a Zaidi leader killed by the Yemeni army in September 2004. As Zaidis, they belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Though a minority in predominantly Sunni Yemen, they are the majority in the north. Claiming discrimination, they want their own autonomous district in the north. In recent weeks, al Houthi rebel leaders have claimed that Saudi Arabia was helping Yemeni troops by letting them use Saudi territory to attack rebel positions and they threatened to take action against the Saudis.

Asked why the al Houthi would challenge the Saudis when they are already under siege from Yemeni troops, Mr Alani said that they may calculate that an expanded conflict would work to their advantage. "By widening the conflict from an internal one to a regional one - Saudi pressure will increase on Saleh to settle the dispute with the al Houthi," said Mr Alani. "This is their calculation." Meanwhile, civilian suffering is increasing on both sides of the border. In Yemen, an estimated 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes since August, when Yemeni forces began a concerted push to quell the al Houthi rebellion.

And this week, hundreds of Saudis were evacuated from their homes in border villages and are living in temporary camps, according to Saudi press reports. At least four Saudi civilians have been killed so far. Al Jazeera newspaper was among the media outlets that reported the death of the four women, all from the same family, in Al Qarn village at dawn on Thursday. The circumstances that led to their deaths are not clear.

The Saudis say they have not gone into Yemeni territory but are dislodging "infiltrators" who have taken up positions on Saudi territory in the area of the 6,600-foot high Smoke Mountain, which straddles the rugged border. "The [military] operations will continue until all positions inside Saudi territory are purged of all hostile elements," the Saudi government said in a statement on Friday. "All necessary measures will be taken to prevent this from happening again in the future."

The rebels, on the other hand, claim that the Saudi air force has raided camps well inside Yemen, in the province of Sa'ada. And on Thursday, a Saudi government adviser told wire services that the Saudis were targeting rebel camps in Yemen from the air. cmurphy@thenational.ae