There is growing concern that another round of fighting between the army and Houthi-led rebels in the northern governorates of Saada and Amran is imminent. Clashes have escalated in recent days and an 11 February ceasefire has all but broken down, observers say.
Houthi-led Shia rebels had captured 200 of the army’s Republican Guards, taken control of army sites and forced government staff to leave various Saada districts, said Sheikh Yahya al-Jaradi, chief mediator in the conflict, on 27 July.
"Houthis transferred the captured soldiers from Harf Sufyan District in Amran to Matra and Naqaa in Saada," he said. "They don't want peace. They are forcing civilians to leave their homes; they have started digging in again in mountain-top positions."
Al-Jaradi said the rebels had exploited the five-month truce to buy more weapons and dig more trenches.
The escalation in fighting comes a week after clashes between rebels and pro-government tribesmen in Harf Sufyan left dozens killed and many others injured.
Local independent news website marebpress.net reported on 27 July that 17 corpses of Houthi gunmen were found near the house of pro-government tribal leader Sheikh Saghir Bin Aziz. "The house was bombed by Houthis on 26 July and Bin Aziz was injured,” it said.
“Neither side wants peace”
A Yemeni political analyst, who asked not to be named, described the situation as the worst since the February truce.
"Alarm bells are ringing. We have witnessed too many violations and too much violence. A seventh round of clashes is looming,” he told IRIN. "Neither side wants peace. The government supports Bin Aziz tribesmen against Houthis and the latter never hesitate to kill. The [Saada] governorate is expected to be the scene of bloodshed, starvation, genocide and crimes against humanity."
Yahya al-Houthi, political leader of the Houthis, brother of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi and in self-imposed exile in Germany since 2005, admitted that his followers had captured troops. "They [the soldiers] came to kill our women and children. Twenty members of my family, mostly women and children, were killed by the government’s soldiers," he said in a live interview with Al Jazeera TV on 27 July.
Yemeni President Ali Saleh said the government did not want another war and accused the Houthis of violating the ceasefire agreement on a daily basis. "Stop jeopardizing security and stability in Saada Governorate," he said at a 25 July military ceremony in Sanaa. "The Houthis are defying the state and don't want the ceasefire to hold."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that only about 14,000 of the 324,000 people displaced by the six-year war - most since the sixth round of clashes began in mid-August 2009 - have returned to their places of origin.
“Stability and security, which are vital for large-scale, safe and voluntary returns to Saada, are currently not ensured,” Marie Marulaz, an external relations officer with UNHCR, said. “Removal of mines and unexploded ordnance remains a top priority.”
In Saada Governorate, UNHCR said it had “scarce information on the humanitarian needs and situation beyond a 7km radius of Saada city” as its staff were limited to the city and its surroundings for security reasons.
“Overall insecurity and a lack of access to hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially in northern Amran and Saada governorates, continue to hamper the delivery of assistance,” said a 23 July UNHCR briefing.