x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Yemeni deaths rise as rebels battle army

Six women and ten children among the dead as Shia rebels seek an end to the current government and UN tries to help those on the run.

A Yemeni soldier fires a mobile machinegun at rebel targets on the frontline of fighting in the northwestern province of Sa'ada.
A Yemeni soldier fires a mobile machinegun at rebel targets on the frontline of fighting in the northwestern province of Sa'ada.

SANA'A // Yemeni troops battled Shia rebels in the mountainous north yesterday, one day after scores of people were killed in fighting that had resumed when a ceasefire was broken. Army tanks fired salvos as armoured cars blocked the entrances to the narrow alleys of the old city in Sa'ada, stronghold of the al Houthi rebels seeking to end the current form of government, the officials said.

The rebels returned fire on the army from a hideout in a fortress overlooking the old town. Shops were closed and residents stayed indoors. "They [the army and the rebels] clashed and the police halted all traffic. I was not able to get to work," Abdel-Qader, a clerk, said by telephone. "Both the Houthis and soldiers fought fiercely for several hours. Al Houthis also attacked the old city with mortars. We do not know the number of casualties but I guess there are several," said Mohammed Naji, a resident of Sa'ada city.

"I have seen many tanks positioned at the streets of the old city. It is a terrible situation and people are scared ... inside the city," Mr Naji said. The fighting intensified on Saturday, leaving dozens of people dead or injured in the north of Yemen, military officials said. After waging its "Scorched Earth" operation for three weeks, the government said on Friday it would observe a ceasefire in response to requests from aid agencies, but fighting resumed only three hours after the truce was declared.

The rebels accused the government yesterday of preventing civilians displaced by the fighting from returning to their homes and of using them in the battle. "The government is not looking to apply a ceasefire, but is trying to mislead and trick in order to use the issue of the displaced and those harmed [by the fighting] to get military assistance to the [army's] besieged positions in Sa'ada and Amran," the rebels said.

Yemen's military inflicted massive losses on the rebels who have been fighting against the government since August 11 in Sa'ada and Harf Sufyan in neighbouring Amran province, a military source said in a statement on the defence ministry website yesterday. "Army and security units held off an attack by the Houthi rebels on a position in al Jaraib area, and inflicted enormous losses on the attackers with dozens of dead and injured," the source said.

Initial reports from the fighting on Saturday indicated that four rebel leaders were killed in the battle, which lasted more than nine hours before rebels "ran away, leaving some of the dead bodies of their [colleagues] behind", the source said. The military also carried out an attack against rebel positions on hills overlooking the al Safra district and Sharmat valley, where they destroyed several hideouts of the insurgents, the source said.

In a separate statement yesterday, defence ministry officials accused the rebels of executing six women and 10 children on Saturday when they raided a village in Sa'ada, which has endured intermittent fighting between the two sides since 2004. The rebels refuted the claims, accusing the government of publishing false reports. Fighting resumed following the collapse of a ceasefire declared by the government late Friday to allow relief agencies access to the fighting areas.

The government's truce was announced after the rebels pledged to guarantee safe corridors for humanitarian aid to the strife-torn areas. Abdulmalik al Houthi, the rebel leader, denied that his group was responsible for breaching the ceasefire. "The authorities have refused to call the displaced people to go back to their houses and villages despite its claims that it had suspended its military operations on a humanitarian ground ? It has become clear the authorities do not seek to stop the war but are trying to deceive and exploit the issue of the displaced people and deliver military supplies to sites besieged [by al Houthis] in the provinces of Sa'ada and Amran," Mr al Houthi said in a statement e-mailed to local media yesterday.

The rebel leader included in his statement video clips showing army facilities either being seized or burnt by his forces during the past few days in Sa'ada. Such reports, however, could not be independently verified because both Sa'ada and Harf Sufyan are closed to journalists. The living situation of those displaced by the conflict is deteriorating dramatically, aid agencies say. The United Nations on Thursday called for US$23.5 million (Dh86m) to feed and shelter a mounting number of poverty-racked villagers displaced by the violence.

The UN estimates that intensified combat, which began around Sa'ada city in July, has forced 55,000 highland villagers from their homes, adding to the 95,000 already displaced from previous bouts of fighting in the five-year-old conflict. Thousands have been killed and displaced since the insurgency began in 2004. "The situation is most critical in the city of Sa'ada, which has been cut off from the rest of the world for more than two weeks," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which has evacuated its staff from Sa'ada.

"There has been no water or electricity in Sa'ada city since August 12. Food reserves are running low and the situation is becoming untenable for families, many of who are hosting friends, relatives or neighbours displaced by the street battles." An offshoot of Shia Islam, the Zaidis are a minority in mainly Sunni Yemen but form the majority community in the north. The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is himself a Zaidi.

malqadhi@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse