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YEMEN: Fears of renewed conflict in north as tensions rise

SANAA, 10 March 2009 (IRIN) - Followers of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of a rebel Shia group in the northern governorate of Saada, and local people say tensions have been rising and that the recent conflict with the government may flare up again.

Al-Houthi's Information Office on 10 March said army units opened fire on some civilians wanting to take part in an event organised by al-Houthi supporters to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, and an armed group backed by the government had tried to lay an ambush for those trying to get to the venue.

In another incident, government forces recently accused al-Houthi followers of killing two soldiers and injuring another in the al-Malahid area, in the southwestern part of Saada Governorate, heightening tension. The Interior Ministry said the incident took place on 6 March when soldiers on patrol repulsed an attack, killing one attacker and arresting another.

The conflict in Saada Governorate, which started in June 2004 and went on until President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared it over on 17 July 2008, left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

As a further indication that tensions are rising, Al-Houthi issued a warning to the government on 10 March: "Nothing will frighten us... If you begin any new attack, your losses this time, and defeat, will be much bigger than the previous one." He also accused the government of fomenting tribal clashes in Saada and said the authorities had killed 85 people since the war was declared over in July 2008.

Preparing for fresh conflict?

Sheikh Saleh Habrah, a spokesman for al-Houthi, told IRIN the authorities had started to prepare for another conflict.

"This is clear as they have already started to prepare and train groups from within Saada to stand against the Houthis", he said, adding that the influx of fresh army troops into Saada was another pointer to the government’s intentions.

"These kinds of preparations are made by the authorities before they start wars against us," he said, adding that al-Houthi followers would defend themselves if the state waged war against them.

A local source in Saada, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN clashes took place between al-Houthi supporters and government forces in Ghamr District in the western part of Saada Governorate on 7 March. The source said armed tribal groups were backing the government forces.

"It looks like the government has managed to recruit a number of local people from Saada to fight al-Houthi’s followers. The situation undoubtedly foreshadows a new war," he said, warning that thousands of civilians would be at risk as a result.

The government, however, has said it has no intention of fighting al-Houthi followers.

Humanitarian situation

Al-Houthi spokesman Habrah accused the government of preventing aid from reaching Marran and Haydan districts, where the humanitarian situation was poor.

Saada Governorate had been under economic blockade since July 2008, he said, adding that armed tribal groups were working for the government and “preventing supplies from reaching Saada”. The government has consistently denied this.

A report released in November 2008 by US-based Human Rights Watch criticised the government's policy of restricting humanitarian access to Saada, which had left tens of thousands of civilians beyond the reach of aid agencies.

On 19 February, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said thousands of war victims in Saada were still in need of humanitarian aid. It said difficult weather conditions had put an additional strain on many small communities in the mountains.

ICRC said water treatment services were not as widely available as in the past and that getting potable water had become a daily challenge for most ordinary people. Health services were also under threat.

"Several basic health-care facilities have been abandoned because of the lack of security, and others have been destroyed. Those that are still operating often lack the equipment and supplies they need," ICRC said in a statement.

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Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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