Humanitarian organisations say growing violence could hamper their efforts to help an increasing number of displaced people.
Yemeni unrest blunts aid workers
SANA'A // A deteriorating security situation resulting from confrontations between government troops and al Houthi rebels in the north of the country is restricting the work of humanitarian organisations, aid workers said.
Since June, skirmishes between security forces - who are backed by tribes - and rebels have grown more frequent and have displaced several hundred people. "The situation has become very difficult to manage in terms of security because of the recent clashes going on. We are concerned if the fighting spreads very soon to more areas, our access and services will be limited more than what it is now," said Klaus Spreyermann, the head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sa'ada province.
"We have observed an increase in the number of displaced people during the past two months by over 1,100 families; more civilians left their homes to take refuge in the Sa'ada city where there are four camps for internally displaced people managed jointly by the ICRC and the Yemen Red Crescent Society or with relatives in the city," Mr Spreyermann said. About 7,600 people live in the four camps while about 7,000 others live with relatives or friends and are also supported by the Red Cross, Red Crescent and other aid agencies. The UN estimated last year that the conflict had displaced 130,000 people since 2004 throughout the country.
Mr Spreyermann said Sa'ada had suffered "extremely" and that the economy and public services had been severely affected as a result of the violence. "There is a humanitarian situation that definitely needs support.it is simply difficult for many, many people to make ends meet everyday. This is why we came up with food distribution in areas affected by the conflict," Mr Spreyermann said. He said the movement of foreign aid workers had been severely restricted by the violence, citing the case of nine foreigners who were kidnapped in Sa'ada in June. The bodies of three were found three days later, while the rest are still missing.
"It is not easy to move and we have started to use planes to shuttle forth and back [between Sana'a and Sa'ada], which is not an easy thing to organise every time because there are no regular flights," Mr Spreyermann said. The rebels were reported to have taken control in a series of skirmishes over the past two weeks of much of the western part of Sa'ada, including a key control post on a strategic motorway linking the capital Sana'a with Saudi Arabia. They also captured five military posts in these different districts.
The opposition newspaper al Sahwa reported on Saturday that about 60 people had been killed in those battles, while hundreds of government soldiers surrendered themselves to the rebels. Tension in Sa'ada, according to local sources, is high with strong expectations of all-out war between the two sides. Both parties accuse each other of breaching the truce announced by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, in July 2008 after five battles since 2004.
Abdulmalik al Houthi, the rebel leader, accused the government in a statement on Friday of preparing to launch a new operation in Sa'ada. The statement claimed the authorities had dropped leaflets on Friday in several parts of Sa'ada urging people to fight the al Houthis. "The war has not stopped since the president announced its end. We have recorded 412 violations since then and hundreds were killed and injured. We asked the government to release the prisoners but it continued to arrest people and present them to mock trials. Our demand from the government is to take the army out of the villages, release prisoners and to address the consequences of the war," said Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the group.
Mr Abdulsalam said the al Houthis wanted peace but were prepared to fight in self-defence. "Our option is peace and to demonstrate that we released yesterday [Saturday] 24 soldiers arrested during the fight. We do call on the authorities to take into consideration hundreds of people in their prisons and set them free," said Mr Abdulsalam. The country's top security committee, however, accused the rebels of sabotage acts such as blocking roads, firing at soldiers, and taking over schools, and said the army was planning to "clear the area of criminal elements".
"Since President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered the halt of the military operations, the saboteurs and terrorists continue their attacks on the citizens and security forces, committing heinous crimes against everyone including the elderly, women and children, in addition to kidnapping, blocking roads and destroying houses," the committee said on Thursday. "The security and armed forces ? [will] protect the citizens and their property and cleanse the schools and health care centres and governmental buildings from the criminals."
Mohammed al Emad, the deputy governor of Sa'ada, blamed the rebels for the disruption of public services in the province, including the suspension of schools - as they had been turned into barracks by the al Houthis - the blocking of roads and the subsequent financial damage to farmers as well as the halting of construction projects. The al Houthi rebels have been fighting to restore the Zaidi imamate, which was overthrown in the 1962 revolution. They oppose the government of Mr Saleh, even though he is a Zaidi.
While 23 per cent of Yemenis are Zaidis, many of them, especially those outside of the religious elite, reject the idea of reviving the imamate, as does Yemen's Sunni majority. firstname.lastname@example.org