Yemen rebels, government issue contradictory claims of battlefield success
Yemeni rebels and government-controlled media issued contradictory claims of success in combat Wednesday, amid a 5-week-old army offensive that has roiled this Arabian peninsula nation.
The fighting in the northwestern province of Saada and elsewhere has created a growing humanitarian problem mostly beyond the reach of aid agencies, with about 35,000 people driven from their homes in the last month, according to the United Nations. That adds to the estimated 100,000 people who have been displaced in the combat zone in an on-and-off war that began in 2004.
The conflict has taken on sectarian and geopolitical overtones, with the Sunni Muslim government and its allies trying to portray the rebels as proxies for Iranian influence inside Yemen. The insurgents, who call themselves Houthis after the clan of their leaders, are members of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam.
This week, the Houthis claimed to have taken control of Maheed and Sheeda districts and the town of Hassamah and captured a number of Yemeni soldiers, according to a spokesman for the organization who spoke by telephone from the war zone.
Saba, the government news agency, did not mention Houthi advances and reported that the army caused the insurgents “huge losses in lives and equipment.” The news channel Al Jazeera quoted government officials as saying dozens of rebels had been killed or wounded in recent days.
The competing claims could not be readily reconciled because the fighting is being waged in remote areas.
The five-year conflict has claimed thousands of lives in Yemen, an impoverished nation of 23 million adjacent to one of the world’s key oil transport routes.
“Many people are sitting in the open, on the roads,” said Laure Chedrawi, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Sana. “They have nowhere to go. The situation is getting alarming, and there are already shortages of food and water. These people are in dire need of shelter and basic, essential items.”
The clashes in the north have contributed to the country’s slide into instability. Yemen’s government accuses Shiite-ruled Iran of supporting the Zaidis, while neighboring Saudi Arabia supports the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a Zaidi but has the support of key Sunni leaders in Yemen and the Middle East.
“The government is afraid that [the Houthis] will become like Hezbollah in Lebanon, because they are supported by the Shiites,” said Aref Shibani, a political scientist at Sana University. “That’s why the countries that surround Yemen are afraid. Even the countries that don’t have a good relationship with Yemen will support Saleh [against the rebels]. War works to Saleh’s advantage.”
Saleh recently said in a television interview that captured rebels had admitted receiving cash from Iran. But the Houthis dismiss such charges as propaganda aimed at shoring up international support for a war over local issues.
“The government is making it up,” said the rebel spokesman, who called The Times after an e-mail query to a Houthi website but declined to be identified. “They are using these Iranian accusations because they want money from Saudi Arabia.”
The latest round of fighting broke out Aug. 11 when the Yemeni army launched a series of massive land and air assaults against rebels in the mountainous northwestern provinces of Saada and Amran.
The rebel spokesman said the army remained in control of Saada’s capital and nearby areas, as residents and fighters flee to the mountains to escape the fighting, which has destroyed at least one town.
Aid workers and media have been mostly denied access to the area, except for rare occasions when reporters are embedded with troops. According to relief workers, the fighting is spreading southward toward Sana, the Yemeni capital, and continues to worsen and complicate humanitarian efforts.
Edwards is a special correspondent.