x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Houthi rebels in northern Yemen deny using schools as bases

Fears grow that a truce with the government may not hold after recent clashes.

SANA'A // Houthi rebels in northern Yemen have denied they are using schools as bases in Sa'ada province amid recent violence and growing fears that a truce with the government may not hold. "It is not true we are occupying schools. What shall we do with schools? Such information is groundless," said Mohammed Abdulsalam, the rebel spokesman, by phone from Sa'ada. "How can we occupy schools to demand the release of our prisoners? This is ridiculous. The government is reluctant to operate the schools and send teachers back," he added.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), however, expressed concerns over the alleged occupation of some schools by rebel gunmen. "Unicef is deeply concerned about reports that schools in the northern governorate of Sa'ada were occupied by armed men, and that children are denied their right to education," Geert Cappelaere, Unicef's representative in Yemen, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Schools should be zones of peace where children can learn and thrive. Using them for military or inappropriate political purposes is a violation of children's rights and of international humanitarian law. Children must be allowed to resume their schooling immediately," Mr Cappelaere added.

The north of the country, mainly Sa'ada province, has endured six rounds of fighting since an on-and-off war erupted in 2004. The last round lasted until a truce in February. The government's conditions for the truce included the Houthis' withdrawal from official buildings and abandoning military posts they had seized; reopening roads; returning weapons seized from security services; freeing all military and civilian prisoners; respecting the law and the constitution and pledging not to attack Saudi Arabia.

Since the truce was struck, the two sides continued to exchange accusations of breaching the ceasefire. Yemen's interior ministry on Tuesday accused the rebels of kidnapping four soldiers in the northern province of al Jawf and further undermining a fragile truce. Two Yemeni soldiers and an unstated number of Houthi fighters were killed on Monday in northern Amran province, the first such clash since the February 12 agreement, according to local sources.

Although sporadic clashes between the rebels and neighbouring tribes loyal to Yemen's government have been reported since the truce was enforced, this was the first clash with the army. Mr Abdulsalam accused the government soldiers of ambushing their leader in Sufian district in Amran province but said they are still committed to the truce. However, reports from the field are showing the three-month-old truce is under severe pressure.

"The situation is very tense and everyone's hand is on the trigger. A seventh wave [of fighting] is eminent at any time," said a soldier who has visited Sa'ada this week, on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to media. Saleh Ali, a student from Sa'ada studying in Sana'a, said people in Sa'ada are worried the truce will collapse soon. "The rebels are not committed to the conditions. Their checkpoints are still there and they refuse to let security men or military to enter to some areas," he said.

But both the government and rebels say the truce still stands. According to the education ministry office in Sa'ada, only about 30,000 of the 121,000 children once enrolled in Sa'ada's 725 schools are now attending classes. About 213 schools were damaged during the conflict. "These students couldn't go to their schools as they are either controlled by the rebels or completely damaged by the fighting," Mohammed al Shameri, head of the education bureau in Sa'ada, was quoted as saying on Monday by IRIN, the UN humanitarian news agency.

"The rebels are preventing teachers from entering these schools which they have decked out with 'Death to America and Israel' and 'Victory to Islam' slogans," Mr al Shameri said. "Rebels have occupied dozens of schools in [Sa'ada's] al Safraa, Majaz, Kitaf, Baqim, Razih and Sihar districts, where teachers have not been able to resume classes." However, Mr Abdulsalam refuted such accusations. "I challenge the education ministry to prove that we are controlling schools and we are ready to receive teams either from the Unicef or the media to see for themselves," he said.

Also this week, a Salafist imam was shot dead on Tuesday by a man affiliated with the rebels at a school in Al Zahir district in Al Jawf province due to refusing to teach the rebels' books in the school, according to the state-run Saba news agency.