The Houthi rebels in Yemen are recruiting teenage boys from extremely poor families from the key port city of Hodeidah in a last desperate attempt to keep a hold on the area, sources said.
Yemen government forces — backed by an Arab coalition — launched an offensive on rebel-held Hodeidah on June 13 to box the rebels into Sanaa, cutting off their supply lines and forcing them to work on a political process.
On Sunday, the UAE announced that the offensive was temporarily paused in support of UN peace efforts to convince the Houthis to withdraw fully and unconditionally from the city.
The rebels are starting to feel the pressure and have become desperate for more fighters, Hodeidah residents said.
"A Hodeidah official, known to be close to the Houthis, has been seen roaming around the neighbourhoods enlisting dozens of children and teenagers," a Hodeidah resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told The National.
“He persuaded some children by giving them money and telling them that they will not have to go to the battle front but remain in their neighbourhoods as security.
“Two days later, the official came with arms and military vehicles forcing these underprivileged children to go to the fronts.”
The source said that a number of the children attempted to run away but were shot at by the rebels.
“They had no other choice but to stay with the rebels,” the resident said.
Yemeni government forces on the front line — in pictures
More than 10 members of the Iran-backed Houthi group were detained when they tried to attack a military site in the Al Tihayta area in southern Hodeidah.
"All of those who were caught during the attacks were children from the district of Al Kanawes in north-east Hodeidah," a military source told The National.
“The children all said that that same Hodeidah official had duped them into fighting for the rebels.”
Meanwhile, the Houthi-appointed governor of Hodeidah Hassan Al Haij has disappeared, according to sources.
“He has been missing since May, and we think it is because he is scared of being killed by the Houthis,” one source in Hodeidah said.
“Even though he had been serving the rebels for three years, he turned down a request by them to go to the rural area and enlist new fighters.
“He said he refuses to convince people to send their sons to the fronts, and so the Houthi rebels accused him of collaborating with the Arab coalition.”
The recruitment of children under the age of 15 was recognised as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force in 2002. It applied to both government armed forces and non-state armed groups.
Also in 2002, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, known as OPAC, went into effect.
OPAC was the first international treaty that was completely focused on ending the military exploitation of children. It prohibits conscription of children under the age of 18.
OPAC also stipulates that the voluntary recruitment of children by non-state armed groups is prohibited, although it allows state armed forces to recruit from age 16, as long as those children are not sent to war.