Yemen in Focus: Saudi forces target tribal fighters as Houthis reveal advanced anti-air capabilities
The fighting broke out after Saudi forces attempted to storm a cargo port in the town of Shahn, which lies on the border with Oman, during which they opened fire and injured a number of local tribal fighters.
The Saudi-led coalition has not yet issued a statement confirming the incident, however the al-Mahra peoples’ sit-in committee denounced the attempted "Saudi intrusion" in a statement published on Facebook.
"The committee condemns these practices and violations committed by the Saudi occupation and its militias against our people," it said. "It constitutes a flagrant violation of Yemeni sovereignty and national identity."
"In this dangerous turning point of our honourable history, we call on all the tribes of the province, their sheikhs and their dignitaries, and their citizens to unite alongside all the free folk of the province to prevent the Saudi occupation from imposing its domination on Al-Mahra," the statement continued.
The sparsely populated Al-Mahra province, which lies in Yemen’s eastern desert, has been spared much of the bloody fighting that has overrun the country since the Saudi-led coalition intervened to reinstate the internationally-recognised government in March 2015.
Though many of Yemen’s tribes have remained fairly neutral throughout the conflict, they have been monumental in spearheading disputes and tasing out prisoner swap deals between the fighting factions.
Tuesday’s clashes are just the latest in mounting tensions between tribes and the Saudi-led coalition, which has in recent months faced increasing criticism for its agenda in the south of the country.
“Most fighters on the frontlines on both sides come from tribes and many of them were recruited directly or indirectly by tribal leaders,” Yemeni tribes expert and political analyst Nadwar Dawsari wrote in a piece published by Almasdar Online English.
"Tens of thousands of these men have been killed fighting in a seemingly endless war..Some tribal leaders have grown skeptical that the Saudi-led coalition has true intentions of defeating the Houthis.
"Many are frustrated by the lack of strategy and the inconsistency in military operations led by the coalition and Yemeni government. Some are dismayed at the frequency of incidents in which pro government tribal fighters are killed in coalition airstrikes," Dawsari continued.
The coalition intervened against the Houthis in 2015, in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The coalition force has been widely criticised for the high civilian death toll from its aerial campaign, which has prompted some Western governments to cut arms deliveries to the countries taking part.
Deadly revenge strikes
Earlier this week, thirty-one people were killed in air strikes on Yemen, the United Nations said, the victims of an apparent Saudi-led retaliation after Houthi rebels claimed to have shot down one of its jets.
"Preliminary field reports indicate that on 15 February as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in strikes that hit Al-Hayjah area... in Al-Jawf governorate," the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said in a statement.
Lise Grande, the UN coordinator, denounced the "terrible strikes” which killed women and children.
"Under international humanitarian law, parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians," she said.
"Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It's shocking.”
The coalition conceded the "possibility of collateral damage" during a "search and rescue operation" at the site of the jet crash, which left the fate of its crew uncertain.
The strikes followed the downing of a Saudi Tornado aircraft in the same area on Friday during an operation to support government forces, a rare shooting down that prompted operations in the area by a Saudi-led military coalition fighting the rebels.
Two officers ejected from the plane before it crashed but the rebels opened fire at them in "violation of the international humanitarian law”, the coalition statement said.
"The lives and wellbeing of the crew is the responsibility of the terrorist Houthi militia," the statement said, without specifying whether they had survived.
The Houthi rebels released footage of what they called the launch of their "advanced surface-to-air missile" and the moment it struck the “enemy” jet in the night sky, sending it crashing down in a ball of flames.
"The downing of a Tornado in the sky above Al-Jawf is a major blow to the enemy and an indication of remarkable growth in Yemeni (rebel) air defence capabilities," Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdelsalam tweeted.
The escalation follows fierce fighting around the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, with the rebels seen to be advancing on several fronts towards Al-Hazm, the regional capital of Al-Jawf.
The province of Al-Jawf has been mostly controlled by the Houthis, but its capital remains in the hands of the Saudi-backed government.
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The downing of a coalition warplane marks a setback for a military alliance known for its air supremacy and signals the rebels' increasingly potent military arsenal.
"At the start of the conflict the Houthis were a ragtag militia," Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, told AFP.
"Today they have massively expanded their arsenal with the help of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah," Lebanon's powerful Shia movement.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels earlier this week said it would put on trial military personnel suspected of being behind deadly air strikes on civilians in Yemen, where the UN has deplored horrific rights violations.
Wednesday's announcement by coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki is the first of its kind since the coalition, which still includes the United Arab Emirates despite its recent drawdown of its forces, first intervened in Yemen.
”The judicial authorities have begun the procedures of the trial, and the judgements will be announced once they acquire the peremptory status," Maliki, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency, told journalists in London.
He said the trials would be based on the results of investigations by the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), which the coalition established but says operates independently.
The cases being investigated include a 2018 air strike on a school bus in the northern region of Dahyan that killed at least 40 children, Saudi-based Arab News said.
They also include a raid on a wedding party the same year in the Houthi-controlled Bani Qais area of Hajja province, which left 20 dead, and the 2016 deadly bombing of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in which 19 people were killed.
The coalition is committed to holding responsible "violators... of international humanitarian law - if any - in accordance with the laws and regulations of each country in the coalition", Maliki added.
The number of suspects and their nationalities were not immediately known.
Both the coalition and the rebels have been accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing violations in Yemen that could amount to war crimes.
In September, UN war crimes investigators appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 said they had "identified, where possible, individuals who may be responsible for international crimes" and had provided the confidential list to UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
If confirmed by an independent and competent court, many of the violations identified "may result in individuals being held responsible for war crimes," they said in a statement.
"There are no clean hands" in the conflict, one of the experts, Charles Garraway, told reporters at the time.
Both the Yemen government and the Saudi-led coalition refused to cooperate with the experts.
But the latter said they had based their findings on more than 600 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as documentary and open-source material.
According to the experts, airstrikes, indiscriminate shelling, snipers and landmines were terrorising civilians across Yemen, one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
They urged the international community to refrain from providing the parties at war in Yemen weapons that could be used in the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bought billions of dollars' worth of weapons from the United States, France and Britain.
Tax on aid
In more positive news this week, Yemen's Houthi rebels confirmed they had dropped a threat to impose a tax on aid on Friday, in a significant step towards resolving a crisis that has jeopardised the world's biggest humanitarian operation.
United Nations leaders and aid groups held crunch talks in Brussels on Thursday to consider scaling back or suspending the delivery of vital supplies to millions of people at risk of starvation.
Humanitarian agencies have complained of a deteriorating situation in the Houthi-controlled north, with aid workers facing arrest and intimidation, as well as obstruction and bureaucracy that hampered their work.
In a letter seen by AFP and confirmed by the Houthis, the head of their aid body SCMCHA wrote to the UN's undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock informing him of a decision to "suspend the 2% and not apply it for this year 2020".
Abdul Mohsen al-Tawoos said the levy "was only to cover basic expenses so we can deliver all the assistance to our humanitarian partners" and that they hoped to find "alternative solutions that will enable everyone to fulfil their obligations".
A UN official in Sanaa confirmed the rebels had backed away from the levy.
"The cancellation of the tax is a positive development for sure," he told AFP, noting however that other issues that still need to be dealt with relate to "access and bureaucratic impediments".
Yemen has been driven to the brink of famine during five years of fighting between the Houthis and the internationally recognised government which is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.
The Brussels meeting heard that, while both sides have made trouble for humanitarian and UN agencies, the Houthi attempts to tax shipments triggered the latest crisis.
"It cannot continue, the biggest lifeline on earth is at stake. There are 20 million people in need in Yemen," Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AFP on Thursday.
"We cannot pay donated aid money to one of the parties to the conflict. So that is one of the many red lines that we are fearful of having to cross. We cannot do it," he said.
The announcement came after a seven-day meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman.
A joint statement from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross called the deal "a step towards the fulfilment of the parties' commitment to the phased release of all conflict-related detainees according to the Stockholm Agreement".
The number of prisoners to be released was not specified and neither was the timing.
The warring parties agreed to exchange some 15,000 detainees as part of a UN-mediated deal brokered in Sweden in 2018.
"This is a purely humanitarian measure that must be implemented without delay, according to what was agreed in Jordan," the Yemeni foreign ministry said on Twitter.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam tweeted that "1,400 prisoners, including Saudis and Sudanese, will be freed".
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, urged the warring parties "to move forward with the exchange they agreed on today (Sunday) with the utmost sense of urgency.
"Progress has been too slow on this front," he said.
The committee overseeing the Sweden prisoner swap plans to meet again in late March "to discuss further exchanges", the statement added.
Both sides have released hundreds of prisoners over the past months as part of sporadic swaps.
"Despite ongoing clashes, we saw that the parties have found common humanitarian ground that will allow many detainees to return to their loved ones," said Franz Rauchenstein, the ICRC's head of mission in Sanaa.
Agencies contributed to this report.
Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.
Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino