Yemen’s Houthis take villages vital to the northern front

The rugged area near the Saudi border has become an important frontline in recent weeks

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file, photo, tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels hold up their weapons as they attend a gathering to show their support for the ongoing peace talks being held in Sweden, in Sanaa, Yemen. The United Nations has cast doubt on the claims by Yemen’s Shiite rebels to have withdrawn from the port of Hodeida, saying such steps can only be credible if all other parties can verify them.(AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
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Houthi rebels have gained ground in the mountainous northwest of Yemen, seizing tribal villages, killing anti-rebel fighters and civilians after weeks of intense clashes.

The rugged mountainous area near the Saudi border has become an important front line in recent weeks as local Hajoor tribesmen battle against the Iran-backed rebel assault.

"The rebels killed 62 civilians in the Hajoor tribal area, among them were 5 children and 5 women," Yemen's Minister of Human Rights Mohammed Askar told The National. "Also 217 were injured in the fighting and 268 families were displaced."

Video released by local media showed civilian homes on the steep slopes of the area being shelled by Houthi artillery and mortars when they failed to make gains earlier on in the offensive.

“The rebels have blown up 24 civilians houses and about five mosques, they also destroyed 30 farms by planting mines in [the soil] or by preventing the owners of the farms from irrigating them,” the minister added.

A local source told The National that the Houthis were now in control of the majority of the Kushar area and had taken the centre of the district on Sunday.

They advanced, taking over Al Abaisa area and they killed the top [tribal] leader, Abu Muslim Al Zakari, and detained all his family members after blowing up his house in addition to other two houses belong to other leaders who fled the area before the Houthi take it over,”  the source said.

In an effort to hold back the Houthi rebels, jets from the Arab-led coalition carried out a string of airstrikes against Houthi positions as they massed for the final assault on Saturday. The source said that dozens of Houthi fighters gathered on Al Za’akira mountain in Kushar district were killed in the coalition raid.

Despite the airpower, the rebels were able to push their offensive and capture the rugged mountains.

The situation has been calm in the area since a ceasefire between the local Hajoon tribe and the Houthis in 2013 but fighting escalated in January with both sides blaming each other for the violence.

Hajoon leaders have warned that the Houthis were able to redeploy fighters from Hodeidah to other fronts after fighting eased – but has yet to fully stop – after the United Nations-backed ceasefire in the Red Sea port city in December.

The coalition has also tried to aid the tribesmen with airdrops of food, medicine and arms.

A Crisis Group report on the fighting suggested that if the Houthis are unable to assert control on the previously neutral area they risk having links cut between Sana’a and their heartland in Saada province, impacting their ability to sustain the battle against the government.

On the other hand, if they win, “they will have demonstrated their dominance in north-western Yemen and will further consolidate their control of territory in advance of any political settlement”, the group said.

Mr Askar held a media conference in Cairo on Sunday to declare the area of Kushar a disaster zone. The UN estimates that thousands of people may have been displaced. On March 8, the UNHCR said it was assessing some 1,429 families who had been displaced.

He said that the Houthis were carrying out mass killings against the tribal fighters in Hajoor.

Mr Askar called on human rights organisations and international bodies working in Yemen to put pressure on the rebels to stop terrorising civilians in the area and open humanitarian corridors to allow those wanting to escape to do so.

Having been besieged by the Houthis for more than 50 days, many are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, he said.

Elsewhere in Yemen, pro-government Giants Brigade spokesman, Col Mamoon Al Mahjami, told The National on Sunday that rebel forces were continuing to violate the ceasefire in Hodiedah.

He said the Houthis had launched several attacks against positions of the joint forces in Al Duraihimi area as well as inside the city.

“The rebels have been launching planned attacks at our sites, however, we still stick to the UN-sponsored ceasefire,” Col Al Mahjami said. “They shelled our sites in eastern Al Duraihimi, on Al Khamseen street and shelled the food factory of the Thabet Group, burning it up on Saturday.”