Houthi-led Shia rebels are becoming more assertive and expanding the area under their control especially in the northwestern Yemeni governorate of Hajjah, say observers, prompting the Interior Ministry on 12 February to warn the Houthis to halt their operations.
Houthi commander Abdulmalik al-Houthi denied Houthis were expanding their area of operations, saying they were merely trying to defend themselves.
“Islah [major Islamist opposition party] members ambushed our men [last week] as they were on their way to attend celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed, leaving more than 10 dead,” al-Houthi said on 13 February.
Others say the Houthis appear to be looking to secure their interests in the longer term. Ahmad al-Daghshi, the author of a book entitled The Houthi Phenomenon, said Houthis are planning to gain control of the port of Maidi on the Red Sea (in Hajjah Governorate) to allow them to bring in weapons and other supplies by sea.
“This [Houthi militancy] will be the biggest challenge for the national reconciliation government during the transitional period after the presidential elections,” he said in an interview with al-Saeeda TV, a Yemeni independent satellite channel, on 13 February. “It is bigger and more serious than the Southern Movement or Al-Qaeda because it receives a lot of support and funding from foreign parties.”
The Houthis, who want more autonomy, have been engaged in a series of intermittent wars with the government since 2004. Over the past year of nationwide protests, the Houthis voiced support for aims of the revolution and the ousting of President Saleh, but are against the recently signed political deal (including elections) sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Abdullah al-Najjar, a political analyst at Amran University, told IRIN the Houthis had acquired weapons from the army during clashes since 2004 and were using them: "They even have tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces," he said.
Meanwhile, the Houthis control over 70 percent of neighbouring Sa’dah Governorate, exploiting the absence of government forces. On 15 February, they stormed the Islah Party offices in Sa’dah city, have been tearing down pictures of the sole presidential candidate Abdurabu Mansour Hadi, and are preventing any officials from putting up electoral posters, according Saddam a-Farih, a local journalist.
The Hajjah and Sa’dah governorates are nominally under the control of troops (led by Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh) which defected from the army. However, since Houthi-Salafi clashes first broke out in Sa’dah Governorate in mid-November, neither defected nor pro-government troops have intervened.
Tribal mediators have made several attempts to stop the bloodshed, but so far to no avail.
Owing to insecurity, election officials have not been able to access the eastern part of Hajjah Governorate ahead of the elections.
Aid workers are concerned because the Houthi resurgence is leading to fresh clashes and further displacements.
In the past two weeks Houthi rebels have clashed with Salafi Sunni militants and/or members of the Islamist Islah Party, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, according to local news sources and aid workers.
|Since 2004, Houthis have signed several truces either with the government, Salafis, or tribal groups, but have respected none|
Several dozen people have been killed or injured in the clashes, according to Hajjah.net, and many others have been denied access to basic services like health and education.
This week 500 families have been displaced, bringing the number of newly displaced families from Kusher and Mustaba districts in Hajjah Governorate to over 1,000 in two weeks, said Mohamed Ghanim, head of Kusher District.
“They [displaced families] are scattered in various areas of the governorate, but most are sheltering in the Khameisin area of Khairan al-Muharaq District. Some 70 families, displaced this week, headed for Haradh [in the northwestern part of Hajjah],” he said.
There could be further displacements as the Houthis appear to be intent on expanding their influence - and given the lack of intervention by government troops in the region - said Ghanim.
The UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 14 February that about 7,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled their homes in Hajjah, and that significant challenges remain concerning where to accommodate this new caseload if the displacement proves to be protracted.
According to OCHA, agencies in Haradh are focusing their limited resources on the needs of the most vulnerable IDPs, but more assistance is needed to cope with increasing needs.
A preliminary assessment of the humanitarian situation, including the child protection needs of IDPs in al-Khamisein, found that children are seriously distressed due to their displacement and after witnessing fighting between Houthis and tribal groups, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a 12 February report.
Health, education affected
Health and education services have been disrupted by the clashes. “The expansion of Houthi influence into Hajjah Governorate is becoming a concern,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF representative in Yemen.
Two UNICEF-supported health centres in Mustaba District had been closed by armed Houthis, affecting some 5,000 children. “At another health centre, the number of staff was reduced from seven to three workers due to Houthi intimidation,” he said.
“My three children have not gone to school since 24 January,” 50-year-old Abdullah Thabet, from Haza area, Kusher District, told IRIN. “I haven’t allowed them to go out since then, following the killing of two children; five others have gone missing in the area.”
Thousands of children are out of school due to the clashes, said Mabkhut Zaid, an adviser with Hajjah Education Office. “They either fled with their families to other safer areas or are stranded in their homes,” he told IRIN.
A ceasefire signed by Houthis and Kusher tribal leaders on 9 February collapsed on day two when 19 Houthis and 11 tribal members were killed in clashes, and dozens of others on both sides injured, Sheikh Abdullah Wahban, a member of a mediation committee which had drafted the ceasefire agreement, told IRIN.
"A woman in her forties was killed along with her five children in Kusher on 13 February," he added.
“Since 2004, Houthis have signed several truces either with the government, Salafis, or tribal groups, but have respected none,” Wahban said.
Zaid al-Shami, an MP and one of the mediation committee members, said the clashes had resumed before the ceasefire could be properly implemented. The Houthis insist on imposing their [Shia] religion in Hajjah by force, resulting in armed confrontations with locals, he said. “It was better for them to offer their ideologies peacefully if they want others to follow them, not by force.”
Under the ceasefire, gunmen on each side were required to abandon their mountaintop positions, and those from Sa’dah were supposed to return to their home villages, according to mediator Wahban.