Thousands of residents of the northern province of Saada have been displaced from their homes following clashes between government troops and followers of the deceased Shia leader Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi.
Al-Houthi followers espouse anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiments, accusing the government of kowtowing to the US. Their popular refrain in mosques and public meetings is ‘Death to America; curse to the Jews and victory for Islam”.
Observers say al-Houthi followers have strong faith in their current leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the grandson of Hussein.
The government accuses the militant group of trying to secure Shia rule in the predominantly Sunni country.
The exact number of displaced is unknown but Hisham Hassan, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told IRIN on Monday that his organisation had provided aid to just less than 1,000 displaced families. In Yemen, it is estimated that each family consists of about eight people.
“These families have fled to safer areas either in the city of Saada or around it. Some of them are now staying with their relatives in the province while others are in camps,” he said.
Hassan added that, with the help of the Yemeni Red Crescent, the ICRC distributed 282 tents for displaced families between 6 February and 6 March.
The two organisations also provided about 7,000 mattresses, more than 2,000 gallons of potable water and other items such as soap and plastic coverings. Hassan further said that the ICRC provided basic medical equipment to six health facilities in the province and treated several people injured in the fighting as well as sick civilians.
There are seven hospitals in Saada, with about 650 health workers, but officials said this was not sufficient to deal with a high number of casualties for lack of specialised staff. Badly injured people are sent to hospitals in the capital, Sana’a, or to al-Salaam, a Saudi-run hospital in Saada.
However, the ICRC’s movement in Saada has been restricted due to insecurity. Security authorities have set up checkpoints throughout the area, preventing people from entering and leaving the province. Communications have also been cut off.
Rebels using human shields
The government says that its troops have tightened their grip around al-Houthi militants, who are fighting in the mountains, adding that the rebels use citizens as human shields in their fight with government troops. Residents say government forces have been using heavy artillery and helicopters as well as other aeroplanes to bombard the mountainous areas where the rebels are thought to have taken refuge and which are difficult to reach.
So far, at least 250 rebels and 105 soldiers have been killed in recent fighting.
Fighting between government forces and al-Houthi followers in Saada first broke out in 2004. Fierce clashes at intervals over the past three years have claimed the lives of more than 700 government forces and wounded about 5,300.
The current fighting was sparked by al-Houthi supporters threatening to kill members of a small Jewish community in Saada if they did not leave the country within 10 days.
On 29 January, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh asked the rebels to lay down their arms, saying that his government would be blameless for any action it might take if they did not do so. On 17 February, Saleh ordered the authorities in Saada to take the necessary measures to end the rebellion.
The fighting became fiercer in February after parliament authorised the government to use all its force to suppress the rebellion. Since then, more troops have been sent to the area. The government also urged religious scholars to help by preaching about the ‘danger’ of the rebels and their beliefs.
However, on Monday Saleh said that it had become impossible to have a dialogue with the rebels after all efforts were made to convince them to end their rebellion.
As clashes escalate, humanitarian crisis unfolds
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions