News from Yemen: Yemen's Conflict Explained
- Yemen's Conflict Explained
Who are the Houthis?
The Houthis are a group of Shiite rebels, who are based in the north of Yemen. The current unrest goes back to 2004, when the cleric Hussein Al-Houthi started an armed rebellion against the central government.
Hussein Al-Houthi was a representative of Al-Haq party in the Yemeni parliament from 1993 to 1997. However, Al-Houthi, who had wide backing the northern provinces, thought the government was too closely allied with the United States. The Zaydi leader established a group known as Al-Shabab Al-Mo’men (The Believing Youth).
The protests led by the group against Israel and the United States turned to violent clashes with the security forces, and the situation quickly escalated to a full-blown rebellion. After months of fighting, Al-Houthi and a number of his aides were killed during a government operation against the rebels.
Yet, against all expectations, the armed revolt continued under the leadership of a number of the late cleric’s family members. A number of truces and mediation efforts did not succeed in putting an end to the ongoing conflict.
In 2006, around 600 rebels were released by the government after signing a “covenant of loyalty.” However, repeated clashes between the security forces and the rebels renewed, with each side accusing the other of violating the terms of the cease-fire.
The Qatari mediation efforts succeeded at bringing the two sides to the meeting table in 2008. Yet, the Qatari-brokered deal broke down this year.
The latest round of fighting has caused much alarm in Yemen’s ultraorthodox neighbor Saudi Arabia. Warplanes have been bombing several northern town, killing scores of civilians according to rebels.
Who is Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi?
He is the brother of the rebels’ late leader Hussein Al-Houthi. Abdul-Malik, together with his brothers Abdel-Karim and Yahia, is the current leader of the insurgency in northern Yemen.
What are the rebels’ demands?
The rebels call for releasing all prisoners, reconstructing the province of Saada, and allowing them to establish a political party. The Yemeni government, however, claim that the Houthis seek a return to the Imamate.
It is important to note that before the 1962 revolution, the north was governed by an Imamate system, under which a line of descendants of Prophet Mohamed ruled the area bordering Saudi Arabia.
Is the conflict in Yemen about sectarian divides?
Saada, a northern province, is the stronghold of the Zaydi minority in Yemen. The Zaydis are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but their beliefs are usually regarded with less disapproval from Sunni Muslims.
Sometimes the conflict in Yemen is portrayed as a sectarian problem, yet many analysts argue that it is more of a power struggle. Also, some observers highlight the economic grievances of the north’s tribesmen. Furthermore, rebels accuse the government of giving Sunni fundamentalists much of a voice in Yemen.
Why are Southerners calling for secession?
Before the unity of north and south Yemen in 1990, the south was an independent state known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The inhabitants of the oil-rich southern governorates have long complained about what they perceived as economic injustice.
The forced retirements of a big number of army officers resulted in a wave of popular anger that turned violent in 2007. Leaders of the former ruling party of south Yemen, who are based abroad, have been urging people to reject unity and to consider the Yemeni government an occupier.
Notably, southerners have been accusing the government of abusing their resources.
Yemen: The land with more guns than people
At least 150,000 people are displaced in Yemen by fighting between Shia rebels and Sunni government forces.
By Jane Merrick and Kim Sengupta
Entire villages of people in north Yemen are being forced to flee by bands of Shia rebels as a sharp escalation of violence in the region prompts warnings that the conflict could become as bitter as that in Darfur. Fighting in the unstable Arab country, where weapons outnumber people and 50 per cent are illiterate, has already displaced about 150,000 souls.
In the past month the conflict has worsened, leaving tens of thousands without access to water and sanitation.And in the past 48 hours, sources reported that two of the largest tribes have begun to polarise behind opposing sides, with one amassing behind the Yemeni president's "popular army" and another falling in behind the Shia rebels, known as al-Houthi. Aid agencies are concerned that a tribal element to the fighting could add immeasurably to its ferocity.
The Yemeni government has accused the Iranians and Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi radical Shia leader, of helping the rebels who, in turn, claim that they have come under regular attacks from Saudi warplanes. The Shia rebels, Zaidis, were accused by the Yemeni government of carrying out the recent kidnapping of a group of foreigners including a Briton. Critics say that while waging its campaign against the Shias, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's administration has done little to combat Sunni al-Qa'ida.
Sources on the ground said yesterday that rebel gunmen fighting government forces in the Saada region, the area isolated by the conflict, are forcing civilians to join them in fighting or face torture or death. One who visited a camp in Haradh spoke to villagers at the centre of the violence who were given ultimatums by al-Houthi troops. The source said: "They are told to join the rebels or leave or be killed. The population of one village refused to join the rebellion and has fled to Haradh or Saada town. Two families were killed and many others have been tortured."
Last Thursday, the government in the capital, Sanaa, ordered air strikes directed at the rebels but which were reported to have killed 87 refugees sheltering in camps, prompting outrage from aid agencies. Following the air raid on Thursday, the al-Houthi rebels issued a statement condemning the "bloodthirsty" authorities for perpetrating a "massacre". It was claimed that many of the 87 killed were women and children. But there were counterclaims that the rebels had infiltrated the camps, forcing refugees to flee.
Yesterday, the government offered a conditional ceasefire to mark the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday that ends Ramadan, but the rebels were not quick to seize on it. They said they would monitor the situation on the ground before responding formally. Ceasefires do not have a good record in the country. The last one, two weeks ago, fell apart within hours, and the conditions set by the government this time – which include removal of roadblocks and withdrawal of rebel forces – do not bode well.
Rebels and government troops have been fighting for years, but the violence has worsened in the past month. The UN issued a "flash" appeal for emergency aid earlier this month but received little response. Aid agencies are unable to get access to a large area of the Saada governorate. Roads are blocked; there are frequent blackouts and mobile phone signals are jammed. Water supply and sanitation services are virtually non-existent, and about 25,000 people are trapped in Saada town and have not received any assistance by any humanitarian agency for weeks. The World Food Programme is trying to gain access through Saudi Arabia.
There are several thousand refugees living in tents at the camp at Haradh, in the south of Saada region and 12 miles from the frontline. The camp has been accessed by aid agencies but roads further north remained blocked. "There is very little access to water [in the area of fighting]. People are living in very poor conditions," said the local source. Oxfam and other aid agencies were providing clean water and sanitation at the camps.
A spokesman for Oxfam said: "Tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance, caught in the crossfire. Saada in particular has been virtually cut off from the outside world and countless civilians there are undoubtedly suffering abominable conditions. The situation is deteriorating for people who've had to go another day without food, water, or protection from violence. It is nearly impossible to know what the exact conditions are for 60 per cent of people who have been forced to flee their homes."
There is a long-standing rivalry between al-Houthis, who are Shia Muslims, and government forces accused of using extremist Sunni forces. Besides the sectarian divide, reports were emerging of a "dangerous polarisation" between various tribes, with the Hashed tribe rallying itself behind the government while the Bakil, the second largest in the region, has aligned itself to al-Houthi rebels.
Sources stopped short of warning that the situation was on the verge of ethnic cleansing on the scale of Darfur or Rwanda, but said there were "worrying parallels" and that the situation could worsen. The government in Sanaa claims the rebels want to restore a Shia state that fell in the 1960s and accuse Shia power Iran of waging a proxy conflict.
The rebels say they want autonomy and accuse President Saleh of despotism and corruption, as well as introducing Sunni fundamentalism via his alliance with Riyadh. Instability in Yemen has alarmed Washington, London and neighbouring Saudi Arabia. An aid source added: "There is a real risk that the Yemen will collapse to levels of insecurity seen in Somalia and Afghanistan."
Following the air strike, Foreign Secretary David Miliband called on both sides to avoid harming civilians and to allow humanitarian access to the victims. He added: "Continued fighting will only bring about further suffering for civilians in a region which has witnessed years of violent unrest. Both sides have a responsibility urgently to reach a settlement which protects the safety and security of the Yemeni people."
The current conflict, which began on 12 August, is the sixth in Saada since 2004 and follows a ceasefire in July 2008. The 22 million population of Yemen – 30 per cent of whom are Shia – is the poorest in the Middle East. Analysts claim economic reasons are fuelling the fighting. Yemen is set to run out of oil within a few years, while al-Houthis have been disproportionately denied resources.
The country has long been a breeding ground for Islamist militants, and Osama bin Laden's family migrated from there to Saudi Arabia. A group claiming to represent al-Qa'ida announced recently that it had merged with its Saudi counterpart to form "al-Qa'ida in the Arab peninsula", AQAP. According to Yemeni estimates, which the US maintains is too conservative, about 1,500 Islamist fighters are based there.
The tensions are not overly evident in the capital, Sanaa, where the slow pace of life becomes soporific in the afternoon when large numbers of the male population retire to chew the narcotic khat. But beneath the surface there are signs of the growing presence of international Islamists and militant preachers, followed by the arrival of Western counterterrorist officials. Both sides are seemingly preparing for Yemen to provide the next episode in the "war on terror".
Yemen ceasefire 'not respected'
Fighting in Yemen is reported to be continuing despite a conditional ceasefire called by the government in its conflict with northern Shia rebels.
The government had called the ceasefire to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The UN has appealed to both sides to allow humanitarian corridors to be opened so that aid can be delivered to those displaced by the fighting.
About 150,000 people have been displaced in the five-year conflict.
On Saturday, statements from both the military and the rebels accused the other side of continuing attacks in spite of the ceasefire.
The combat area has been cut off from journalists, and correspondents say it has been hard to verify conflicting reports from both sides.
It is the second recent ceasefire that appears to have quickly collapsed.
The government had proposed that it begin late on Friday and run during Eid, the three-day holiday that starts on Sunday and marks the end of Ramadan.
The government's five conditions included removing road blocks, the withdrawal of rebel forces, the release of detained military personnel, and abiding by the constitution and Yemeni law in general.
But the rebels have asked that the ceasefire be unconditional.
The BBC's Paul Wood reports from Yemen that people at a camp for the displaced said rebels had been steadily winning territory from the army.
International concern about the conflict has intensified after witnesses said that more than 80 people were killed in a government air raid on a camp for displaced people on Wednesday.
The rebels, known as Houthis, complain of discrimination. They say they want greater autonomy and a greater role for their version of Shia Islam.
Both sides see unwelcome influences from abroad, with government accusing rebels of having Iranian backing and being accused itself of being influenced by Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni government is also battling secessionists in the south and has been criticised by the US for its failure to tackle al-Qaeda militants in the east and pirates off the coast.