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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Yemen’s fight against the Houthi landmine legacy

UAE soldiers say they have defused more than 40,000 landmines

An Emirati soldiers threads detonator cord through a captured Houthi landmine. Soldiers told The National they are carrying out the controlled explosion of hundreds of  landmines every few days. Gareth Browne / The National
An Emirati soldiers threads detonator cord through a captured Houthi landmine. Soldiers told The National they are carrying out the controlled explosion of hundreds of  landmines every few days. Gareth Browne / The National

In a parched wasteland populated only by the odd shrub a short drive from Mokha on Yemen’s eastern coast, Ghaneem Al Kaabi packs a cache of captured landmines with plastic explosives. Next he carefully unravels detonation cord and threads it through the metal casing of an old Bulgarian-designed anti-tank mine.

The Emirati soldier is stationed in Yemen as part of the coalition forces fighting Houthi rebels. He is also one of dozens of UAE mine engineers tasked with fighting not just the rebels but their landmine legacy.

He gestures to a nearby crater, perhaps 10 metres deep. “We had a few too many in the last explosion – nearly 2,000,” he says.

The mine specialists have carried out the controlled demolition of tens of thousands of mines. It is the only way to deal with the vast quantities they have discovered. “When we destroy them in this way, we know they can never be planted again,” says Mr Al Kaabi, who declines to give his rank.

It is an ongoing battle. Clearance teams are sent out every morning to sweep the road between Mokha and Kokha, as Houthi rebels often mine the major route at night.

UAE soldiers take part in a demining exercise near Al Mokha in eastern Yemen, this small team claim to have defused tens of thousands of Houthi landmines in recent months. Gareth Browne/The National
UAE soldiers take part in a demining exercise near Al Mokha in eastern Yemen, this small team claim to have defused tens of thousands of Houthi landmines in recent months. Gareth Browne/The National

Part of the job is to educate civilians of the risk of mines. "Ultimately they are the victims of these weapons. It’s rare that the soldiers trigger a mine, it’s almost always the civilians – children and animals too.”

The ignition cord flails in the coastal wind. “Are you ready for a bonfire?” asks one the small group of Emirati and Sudanese soldiers standing around.

The mine clearing teams have removed more than 40,000 landmines since last October, says Mr Al Kaabi, making Yemen the most mine afflicted country he has worked in.

“We’ve worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Lebanon,” he says.

“Somalia and Kosovo too,” adds one of his colleagues.

“We have never see this before,” Mr Al Kaabi says.

Two Emirati soldiers, part of an Arab Coalition minesweeping team, pose for a photos as they await the controlled demolition of a Houth landmine cache near Al Mokha, Yemen. Gareth Browne/The National
Two Emirati soldiers, part of an Arab Coalition minesweeping team, pose for a photos as they await the controlled demolition of a Houth landmine cache near Al Mokha, Yemen. Gareth Browne/The National

The pace of mine clearance has picked up as the Houthis have been pushed back. As the rebels retreat, they leave behind mines at random to slow pro-government forces. Last week, the Saudi Project for Landmine Clearance claimed that Houthi rebels in Yemen had planted one million mines.

Pictures posted to social media show huge caches of uncovered explosives. Some are mass produced, others are improvised, camouflaged to look like rocks, or a children's toy.

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With the detonation cord unravelled, the team of Emirati and Sudanese de-miners take cover behind a berm 500 metres away.

The explosion flashes and moments later a shock-wave jolts the ground before a deafening boom thunders over the bank. The ensuing dust cloud dominates the near horizon.

The quantity of mines being planted by the Houthis, and their increasing innovation has led to accusations that they are receiving outside help. The forces on the ground say they can back up these claims with evidence.

“When we dig them up we can tell they are new," says Mr Al Kaabi. "It means they are producing them, even to this day.”

Two UAE soldiers unwrap plastic explosive, and detonator cord, as they prepare a Houthi landmine cache for controlled explosion. Gareth Browne/The National
Two UAE soldiers unwrap plastic explosive, and detonator cord, as they prepare a Houthi landmine cache for controlled explosion. Gareth Browne/The National

UAE officers told The National that after former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death in December, Houthi defectors had confirmed that Iranian technicians were assisting laying landmines and producing improvised explosive devices.

Tim Michetti, a researcher for Conflict Armament Research, a UK private arms tracking organisation, says their fieldwork in Yemen uncovered signs of Iranian support for the Houthi landmine campaign.

“We have seen evidence that some electronic components were made in Iran and transferred into the country,” he said.

Last week, a leaked UN report noted that a range of weapons captured from Houthi positions in the past three years "show characteristics similar to weapons systems known to be produced in the Islamic Republic of Iran".

Some of which, the report noted, were likely imported to Yemen after the international arms embargo of 2015.

UAE minesweepers lay ignition cord across a cache of Houthi landmines, as two Sudanese colleagues look on. Gareth Browne/The National
UAE minesweepers lay ignition cord across a cache of Houthi landmines, as two Sudanese colleagues look on. Gareth Browne/The National

The Houthis are also taking advantage of the country’s domestic manufacturing industry, Mr Michetti says. “Iran is good at calibrating the right approach – so there is nothing superfluous," he said. “Send in only what you need to send in, use what you can use domestically.”

Some local weaponry comes from captured government stockpiles, while other components are workshop produced on a large scale. "There are domestically made imitations of well-known models” of landmines, Mr Michetti says.

Mr Michetti warns that while the mines are not necessarily difficult to detect, it is the manner in which they are deployed that make them such a risk.

“I can’t imagine the bar for detecting them is very high, but when you see the scale they are removing them, I’d be shocked if the Houthis are keeping maps of where they are planting these things, it’s more just knowing where to look for them – that’s the real challenge”.

A UAE soldier stands guard as his team prepare to sweep a suspected Houthi minefield near Al Mokha, Yemen. Gareth Browne/The National
A UAE soldier stands guard as his team prepare to sweep a suspected Houthi minefield near Al Mokha, Yemen. Gareth Browne/The National

The legacy of landmines in Yemen predates the current conflict. In the early 1960s, British forces deployed anti-tank mines to defend against Egyptian forces. During the civil war in 1994 more landmines were laid and more still prior to unification in 1990.

But these previous conflicts are dwarfed by the scale of current landmine use.

In April, senior Yemeni officials said the country had been the site of the “largest minelaying operation since the end of the Second World War”, and that Yemeni forces had decommissioned more than 300,000 mines over the past two years.

Over a pungent coffee in the officer’s quarters back at Mokha base, Mr Al Kaabi muses over the task ahead. “I’m 100 per cent sure Yemen will never be free of landmines, certainly not in my lifetime but we have to try anyway.”