HARF SUFIAN, YEMEN // High in the mountains of northern Yemen, Naser Yahia Dhawi, a tribal militant fighting alongside government troops, held a dagger and a Quran, which he claimed he took from slaughtered Shiite rebels. "The Houthis are aggressive fighters and difficult snipers, though we have killed many of them," said the 20-year-old, wearing military fatigues. "Our confrontation with them gets tough at night as they attack us with artillery and shells."
The young fighter was speaking from the rugged and arid mountain known as al Jabal al Aswad, or black mountain, where four military brigades have set up base from where they aim to intensify operations against nearby al Houthi rebels. The camp has expanded with dozens of tents and shelters erected to cope with the influx of about 1,000 troops. Mr Dhawi said he was one of about 400 tribal fighters in Harf Sufian backing the army in its offensive, which has been going on in both Harf Sufian and the northern province of Sa'ada, the main rebel stronghold, since August 11.
On Wednesday, fierce fighting left 30 dead across northern Yemen. Among the dead were four soldiers and five rebels killed in the Harf Sufian district of Amran, where the military has established the mountain stronghold. On the way to the mountain, which is 171km north of the capital Sana'a, army vehicles with armed soldiers and their tribal militant allies buzzed back and forth along the bumpy, checkpoint-dotted road. Mobile phone service is suspended around Harf Sufian.
Mansour Khudhair, 22, another tribal fighter from Hashid, the biggest tribe in Yemen, which has deployed hundreds of fighters in support of the army, said he was fighting not only for Yemen, but also spoils of war. "I am fighting to defend my country but also because al Houthis have a lot of guns and I would like to get some of them," Mr Khudhair said, wearing traditional tribal dress with a Kalashnikov rifle hanging from his shoulder.
One army soldier said tangible progress on the ground has been made, particularly after the deployment of Yemen's highly trained al Amalikah brigade to the battlefield in Harf Sufian a month ago. New roads have been built in the mountains which will be used as barricades, according to a local guide. "We are making great progress - Many dead bodies of rebels were left around al Shaqra; we are now besieging Harf city from different sides," said the soldier, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to talk to media.
The soldier said attacking Harf would not be easy as it is riddled with about 700 locally made mines. Another army officer said local criminals were backing the rebels. "We know that scores of wanted criminals are supporting the rebels because they think if any political compromise is reached with the government, they would be part of the deal," the officer said. On leaving the camp, a weighty explosion hit the mountain a few hundred metres away and smoke and dust could be seen in the air. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, said this week that his government was ready to fight the rebels for as long as six years, recognising the difficulty of the task the army faces.
Yemen launched Operation Scorched Earth on August 11 in a bid to finally crush the uprising that has left thousands dead since it first broke out in 2004. The authorities accuse the rebels of seeking to restore the Zaidi Shiite imamate that was overthrown in a republican coup in 1962, triggering an eight-year civil war. The rebels deny the charge. A minority in mainly Sunni Yemen, the Zaidis are the majority community in the north and President Saleh is himself a Zaidi.
The collapse of truce offers presented by both sides during the past two months has led to increasingly fierce fighting, which rights groups say has caused growing numbers of displaced people. According to Yemen Red Crescent Society, a local relief organisation, about 60 families are displaced every day. "The situation of the displaced is catastrophic. Their number is on the rise as long as the battle goes on," said Obaid Mardam, representative of the Yemen Red Crescent Society in Amran.
Ali Dhawi, deputy head of the ruling party office in Harf Sufian, said 35,000 out of Harf Sufian's population of 45,000 have been displaced by the fight. Tens of thousands are now living in scattered, makeshift camps, on roadsides and in the open in the cities of Arman, Hajja, al Jawf and Sa'ada. Abdullah Hasan al Awam, 60, fled his home village of Haidan in Sa'ada last Friday along with his seven-member family and 50 other people. He and his family are now living day to day in Amran. "We fled because of the heavy shelling of the aircraft to Haidan which is controlled by al Houthis," Mr al Awam said. "It took us two days to reach here. We were living in fear as al Houthis fire from places close to our houses. The warplane hit a nearby house and three were killed."
With a pale face and covered in dust, Mr al Awam said he and the male members of his family had been sleeping rough. "Some benevolent locals accepted to house our women, but we, men, have been living here in the open without any shelter. We have no blankets and mattresses. It is a miserable situation," he said while cuddling his son. The UN estimates that intensified combat has forced 55,000 highland villagers from their homes, adding to the 95,000 displaced from previous bouts of fighting in the five-year-old conflict. Thousands have been killed and displaced since the insurgency began in 2004.
Furthermore, old camps which were holding those who fled earlier fighting are straining under a new influx and are inaccessible because of the turmoil, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Thousands of displaced people are stranded around the war zone with aid agencies unable to reach them because of the intensified fighting, local and international aid agencies said. The UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday: "Local residents and displaced people, caught up in the fighting - continue to face a dire humanitarian situation, unable to leave the embattled city to seek safety and shelter elsewhere."
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse