Yemen's Houthi militants are storming public schools in rebel-held areas to recruit pupils as fighters, taking some away by force without telling their families, local residents have told The National.
It comes after Yemeni news sites on Sunday published a letter from the president of the so-called Supreme Political Council — which rules Sanaa and other rebel-held territory — to the chairman of the rebel movement's Revolutionary Committee, ordering him to begin recruiting males for military training from all public universities and primary and secondary schools under Houthi control.
The letter did not stipulate the age of the youths that should be "recruited" but pro-government forces have in the past arrested Houthi fighters as young as 10.
"They [the Houthis] started to come to the public schools, especially the secondary schools, to encourage students to stand with them against the enemy and the Saudi 'colonisation', as they say," Hamood, a resident of Ibb province, told The National.
"They give them religious handouts and encourage them to register for military training." If the pupils do not sign up voluntarily "then they start to select the older ones and take them by force to begin a short period of military training before sending them to the battlefronts".
Hamood, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said the Houthis were doing this without informing the pupils' families of their whereabouts.
It comes as the rebels are losing ground to pro-government forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, on several fronts, including in the western province of Hodeidah and the northern province of Al Jouf.
Mugamal, another Yemeni who spoke to The National about the Houthis' recruitment of pupils, said the son of his former neighbour in Sanaa disappeared about a month ago after going to school one day.
"Osama's family searched for him everywhere but they couldn't find him," said Mugamal, who has lived in a government-controlled area of Marib province since May last year after fleeing his home in Sanaa.
"Last week, a Houthi military vehicle stopped in front of his family home and Houthi fighters called on his relatives to come out and take his corpse, congratulating them on Osama being a martyr.
"They told Osama's family that he was killed at the Nehem battlefront to the east of Sanaa."
It was not clear if Osama, who Mugamal said was aged about 13, had volunteered to fight for the Houthis or had been taken by force.
The Houthis have also targeted schools in other provinces under their control, including Dhamar, Amran and Saada, according to government media.
Ramzi Mokhtar, a journalist covering the fighting between pro-government forces and the Houthis in Al Jouf province told The National that 45 civilians — the majority of them children — from the Gabal Al Shariq area of Dhamar province, south of Sanaa, had been forced to fight in Al Jouf, north of Sanaa.
When Yemeni army forces arrested 50 Houthi fighters in Al Jouf's Al Khab and Al Sha'ab districts a week ago, 30 were children who had been taken by force from Gabal Al Shariq, Mokhtar said. Some of these children said they had been taken by the Houthis from school.
The Yemeni minister of information, Moammar Al Eryani, tweeted on Saturday last week: "Field reports confirm that Houthi Iran militias are giving citizens options of arrest or to send them to battlefronts for fighting. They abduct children from schools & the orphanage house in Sanaa.
"The legitimate government is the only institution that owns right for opening up door 4 military recruiting within the line of military forces as per constitution & law. We highly recommend to people not to follow the misleading instructions by militias which may harm them."