Preparing to invade Sana’a, Hadi’s forces amass hundreds of armored vehicles

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Dozens of families are fleeing Sana’a in response to a military buildup in preparation for the expected invasion of Yemen’s capital, a battle which could prove pivotal in the country’s ongoing civil war. Forces loyal to exiled President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi have amassed hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of fighters in an effort to recapture the Yemeni capital, seized by the Houthi twelve months ago, according to fighters who support Hadi.

Civilians began to evacuate the city in early August with most seeking refuge in neighboring governorates or in rural areas. At present it is unclear whether the battle will go ahead or if Hadi will push for a political settlement, which would likely see the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi withdrawing from Sana’a.

“My home is in… the middle of Sana’a, an area that has a mostly Houthi population. If battles are to start it will last in (my) neighborhood for a while, the Houthis are already barricading themselves in,” Ali Muhammed Al-Mulaiki, 55, a local man who fled the city and was travelling westwards, told The Media Line. “I have a family of five, I sent them to my parents in Mahweet. As for me, I will go back to protect my home from looters and from any fighters who might decide to barricade themselves inside it,” Al-Mulaiki explained. 

“I have lived in my house for 25 years, I never thought that a day would come in which I would have to leave it – it took me 10 years to build,” Al-Mulaiki said, adding that he took no side in the conflict and merely hopes that his family’s property will survive the fighting unscathed.

The Houthi captured Sana’a a year ago following limited fighting which lasted for three days and left dozens dead. This time, if the Houthi choose to try to hold the city against Hadi’s forces, it is likely the battle for the city will last far longer with pitched street by street fighting. This would lead to greater levels of destruction to the city of two million people than had been seen previously.

The loss of the city would be a crucial blow to the Houthi and could mark a turning point in the war.

A conglomeration of tribal militias, fighters from the south and military personnel loyal to Hadi have begun training in preparation for the attack, fighters say. The Saudi-led coalition has supplied the troops with hundreds of armored personnel carriers and tanks, along with trainers, advisors and other non-combat troops. 

Leaders from within the alliance confirmed to The Media Line that Hadi’s forces are preparing first for a political solution and that only if this fails will the invasion of Sanaa’ go ahead.

The military option is ready, Abdul Majid Al-Ghawi, a leading figure in Marib province’s anti-Houthi fighters, and the head of Yemen’s largest tribe, the Hashed, told The Media Line. He said an entire brigade is being trained in Hadramout, a unit which will be tasked with liberating the provinces of Sana’a, Dhamar, Amran, Sa’da and Mahweet. 

“The coalition with their vehicles and planes, the Hadi-loyal Yemeni army and the tribal fighters … will participate in the battle to free Azal Region,” the tribal leader said. The amount of hardware amassed would make victory likely, Al-Ghawi said.

“We have received 400 tanks, armored vehicles, personnel carriers, minesweepers, rocket launching vehicles, in addition to dozens of Apache (helicopters).” 

In addition a military airfield is being constructed to allow warplanes to participate in the operation. These reinforcements will be used to capture Sana’a but will subsequently go on to move into adjacent provinces, Al-Ghawi said. 

“There is a plan to enter Sana’a but I cannot fully disclose it (for operational security reasons), but the key component is that the attack will begin from three different directions,” a second leader from the anti-Houthi fighters, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Media Line. The invasion will be staged from the north, west and south, with troops attacking from the west supported by naval vessels, the source said.

“We are ready to break into Sana’a and liberate it anytime… we are over 15,000 fighters including the army and the popular resistance forces,” Abdulrahman Al-Haisi, a soldier from a brigade loyal to President Hadi, told The Media Line.

The Houthi, along with their ally former President Ali Saleh and elements of the national army loyal to him, are preparing for a long-term battle in Sana’a. Thousands of fighters have been spread throughout the mountains surrounding Sana’a and tunnels and trenches have been dug near the entrances to the city, according to information received by The Media Line. Defenses have also been constructed within the perimeter of the city’s international airport.

A number of Houthi fighters removed their families from the city, seen as further indication of preparation for the upcoming battle. 

“If the coalition tries to enter Sana’a there will be thousands of deaths, they want a sea of blood if they are coming into Sana’a,” Safwan Al-Marwani, a leading figure within the Houthi, told The Media Line. Al-Marwani refused to comment further.

There are indications that negotiations have taken place in Oman between representatives of President Hadi and the Houthi, with the aim of avoiding further fighting. The talks, which commenced in June, are aimed at persuading the Houthi to surrender and withdraw from the capital.

“It appears that we will avoid war in Sana’a because the tribes surrounding the city decided to join Hadi’s side – therefore there is more hope that Sana’a will be regained peacefully,” Nadia Al-Sakkaf, the Minister of Information in Hadi’s cabinet, told The Media Line. 

The tribes who live in the areas around Sana’a are seen as a key broker in any future battle for the city as they control the roads in an out of the city.

Brigadier Ahmed Asiri, spokesperson for the Saudi led coalition refused to comment on the issues discussed in this story, expressing the need to maintain operational security.

Growing number of civilians being killed at Houthi security checkpoints

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

A string of killings linked to Houthi fighters have been blamed on the group’s use of underage fighters to man security checkpoints. More than 100 deaths in Sana’a have been attributed as accidental killings – people killed by stray fire or shot due to a misunderstanding.

The fact that shortages of manpower are causing the Houthi to use child fighters at checkpoints throughout their territory appears to be contributing to the number of people killed accidentally.

After following up rumors of accidental killings linked to security roadblocks The Media Line has learned that the phenomenon is a common problem according to both the fighters operating the roadblocks and some of the families of victims of indiscriminate fire.

Accidental deaths have become so common at checkpoints in Sana’a that the traditional practice of giving rifles to an aggrieved family as compensation for an unintended slaying has become the main recourse for dealing with a death in such circumstances. According to the rules of tribal arbitration, if the family of the victim is not satisfied with the compensation then they can ask for “an eye for an eye” or financial redress.

In one such incident Bashir Al-Waqedi, a building contractor, was killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “The Houthis came and fired randomly at people at a gas station,” said Mohammed

Al-Waqedi, who explained that the fighters fired indiscriminately outside a gas station because they believed an Al-Qa’ida suspect had mingled among the crowd gathered there. Mohammed’s brother was killed and two other men injured.

Mohammed confirmed that his family met with fighters from the checkpoint and that the whole incident had been brushed aside. “We had no choice,” he said.

“They recruit children who know nothing but to fire randomly [at people] at the checkpoints”, said Abdulaziz Al-Nuzaili, whose cousin was killed by a Houthi soldier’s gun at a checkpoint in Sana’a. Omar Al-Nuzaili was 27 and just four months away from being married. Abdulaziz explained how his cousin had worked as a qat dealer and so was rushing to get to market early in the morning. This cost him his life as a 16-year-old boy manning the checkpoint opened fire and struck Omar twice in the chest, killing him instantly.

When Abdulaziz Al-Nuzaili and his family went to the checkpoint to recover the body of their relative they were told that the death had been accidental and were offered two rifles as recompense. The Houthi fighters told Abdulaziz that they would not release the body or admit fault unless the family agreed to forgive the killing and take the offered price.

“We accepted the two rifles and told them that we forgave them,” Abdulaziz said, explaining that his family then went to one of the Houthi’s offices nearby and complained. In response the fighters from the checkpoint were moved to duties outside of Sana’a.

A day after Omar Al-Nuzaili was killed, Aisha Al-Haimi, a human rights activist and English language teacher was shot at another of Sana’a’s checkpoint.

“Aisha and I were on our way to break our fasting at a relative’s house, our car was being inspected,” said Nabil Al-Khader, Aisha’s husband. Fighters from the checkpoint tried to stop a passing motorbike by firing towards it – “One bullet hit my wife’s back, entering her lungs.”

Children from the checkpoint had rushed over to the dying woman and her husband and had apologized explaining that they had been aiming towards the suspected individual on the motorbike. This did not help Aisha, who was rushed to hospital and underwent surgery but succumbed to her wounds two days later.

Underage fighters recruited by the Houthi undergo some training before being distributed to a checkpoint or, if they show fighting ability, being sent to one of the front lines in Yemen or on the Saudi border.

“I am 17-years-old, I have been with the Houthis in this checkpoint for the past two months, I joined them about four months ago,” Asil Al-Zaiydi, a teen fighter stationed at a checkpoint in the south of Sana’a, said. During the fighters’ two months of training, the young men learned religious teachings, manners for interacting with people and how to use a weapon, and following this they are sent to man checkpoints, Al-Zaiydi said.

“But because our training period is so short, some of us just don’t understand fast enough, and all they learn is how to shoot,” Al-Zaiydi explained.

“We are humans, we make mistakes, but rarely,” one teen, nicknamed Abu Gaza, told The Media Line. Gaza, stationed in the east of the city, described the difficulty in controlling and searching all the people who pass through the checkpoint. “Sometimes a person who was not inspected or committed a violation escapes into the moving traffic – it’s difficult to locate him, forcing us to shoot at him.” If a fighter accidentally kills a civilian they are sent to another checkpoint or to fight on the war fronts, Gaza said.

When there is a case of accidental killing the shooter is always investigated, whether or not they are a member of the Houthi, Najib Al-Weshali, one of the group’s leading figures, told The Media Line. Actions are taken against shooters and victim’s families are compensated, Al-Weshali said.

Widespread use of child fighters is common throughout Houthi controlled territory, not just in Sana’a, explained journalist Muad Al-Jalidi. Minors are trained in the use of weapons and the techniques for stopping and inspecting vehicles and travelers, Al-Jalidi said. Further accidental deaths were highly likely due to the unsuitability of children for such military tasks, the journalist predicted.

“The responsibility for involving children in the conflict lies with the Houthi and other armed groups in Yemen,” Jamal Al-Shami, head of a charitable Democratic School in Sana’a, told The Media Line. These groups tempt children into bearing arms with stories of patriotism and national duty, Al-Shami said, and due to the levels of poverty in the country and the closure of schools since the outbreak of violence this rhetoric works.

More citizens are going to die as a result of underage fighters, Al-Shami believes, adding that his charitable organization had contacted the Houthi to ask them to cease recruiting children. The shi’ite group did not respond, Al-Shami said.

In 2007, Yemen signed a UN agreement guaranteeing the removal of all teenagers from its armed forces.

Al-Qaeda claims responsibility for Sanaa suicide bombings

Al-Qaeda's wing in Yemen on Friday claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on Yemen's powerful Shi'ite Houthi group that killed at least 47 people.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated a belt packed with explosives at a Houthi checkpoint in the center of the capital Sanaa where Houthi supporters were preparing to hold a rally.

Body parts were scattered across Tahrir Square and pools of blood formed on the asphalt after the blast, which also wounded at least 75 people.

The bomb attack was carried out by a man called Abu Mouwaia al-Sanaani, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni branch of the movement, said in a statement on its Twitter account.

Thursday's bombing occurred just hours after a showdown between the Houthis and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour forced Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, whose appointment on Tuesday under a power-sharing deal signed last month had angered Houthi leaders, to turn down the post.

The Houthis have emerged as Yemen's main power brokers since their paramilitary forces seized the capital on Sept. 21, following weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

AQAP, which has targeted state institutions, including the armed forces, sees the Houthis, who are members of the minority Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, as heretics.

A southern secessionist movement and the AQAP onslaught on security forces has already stretched the resources of Yemen, an impoverished country of 25 million, and alarmed neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and other Gulf Arab states.

Western and Gulf Arab countries are worried that instability in Yemen could strengthen al-Qaeda and have supported a U.N.-backed political transition since 2012 led by Hadi meant to shepherd the country to stability after decades of autocracy.

Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; writing by Rania El Gamal

Murdered Yemenite Jew buried in Israel

The body of a Yemenite Jewish leader who was stabbed to death in an anti-Semitic attack was brought to Israel for burial.

Aaron Joseph Zindani, 46, was stabbed in the neck and stomach in a market in the capital of Sana’a in May.

His Muslim assailant accused Zindani of casting a spell on and ruining him, according to reports.

Zindani’s wife and five children accompanied the body to Israel, according to reports. The complicated operation was undertaken by the Jewish Agency with the assistance of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Some 200 to 300 Jews still live in Yemen, down from a high of 60,000. Most live in Sana’a in government housing after they were evacuated from other areas over fear for their safety.

A Yemenite Jew was killed in Yemen in December 2008 by a Muslim man who ordered Jews to convert or be killed. The killer was sentenced to death.