Yemen sees sudden spike in violence, threatening peace talks

Back-channel negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis stirred hopes for agreement but renewed violence has rattled the political process.

Hani Mohammed/AP
A Houthi rebel holds a banner with Arabic writing during a celebration in Sanaa, Yemen in November 2019. After a lull in hostilities, a missile attack on a government military camp Jan. 18, 2020 has reignited violence in a five-year conflict with Iran-back rebels.

A drastic escalation in fighting between the Saudi-led military coalition and Houthi rebels in Yemen has killed and wounded hundreds of people over the past week, officials and tribal leaders said this week.

The U.S.-backed Arab coalition battling to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government stepped up airstrikes on rebel targets northeast of the capital, Sanaa, following a monthslong lull, while Houthis shelled government-held areas.

The sudden spike in violence across long-stalemated front lines threatened to exacerbate the five-year conflict and complicate indirect peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed rebels.

The U.N. Security Council called emergency consultations for Tuesday morning at Britain's request on the latest developments.

Britain's U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, said the council would receive a closed-door video briefing from the U.N. envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths.

The warring factions have concentrated their forces in three main areas: Nehm, a half-hour drive from the capital; Jawf, a mountainous northern district; and Marib, a western province that saw one of the deadliest rebel attacks earlier this month.

Fighting this week was the most intense those provinces had seen in three years, according to observers.

A wave of over 40 coalition airstrikes hit rebel targets, destroying many of their tanks and armored vehicles, Houthi officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Despite heavy losses on both sides, the Houthis are gaining ground, officials said. Rebels seized a key supply line linking Marib with Jawf and were approaching the capital of the northwestern province. Artillery shelling in the district killed three civilians Monday.

Throughout the day, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi deliberated with military chiefs and local governors. He stressed the need to "upgrade military institutions to the highest level of training, armament, and vigilance," according to a government statement. Yemeni military setbacks have drawn recent complaints that the army lacks the technically advanced weaponry propelling Houthi advances.

Fighting also flared up Monday in the large government-controlled city of Taiz, where a mortar shell fired by Houthis struck a busy market, killing three civilians and wounding 10. Meanwhile, heavy clashes in the central province of Bayda killed 13 fighters on both sides.

Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed vowed that government forces would "harshly confront" Houthi militias, which he accused of trying to "prolong the war and relieve the pressure and international isolation of Iran."

The Houthi offensives signal "their explicit rejection of peace efforts," he said.

For months, back-channel negotiations in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis stirred modest hopes for reconciliation. But sharply escalating violence has put the political process on shaky ground. The talks in Oman are expected to resume next week.

Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, said the rebel Houthis may use their military successes to gain leverage in any future political negotiations.

"Both sides seem to want some sort of truce," Mr. Salisbury said. "But the danger is that if the Houthis feel they're on the front foot, they'll keep pressing advances and that will make these negotiations very difficult."

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has been convulsed by war since Houthi rebels seized the capital and ousted Hadi's government in 2014. The conflict set off one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, killing over 10,000 people, displacing more than 3 million, and pushing the country to the brink of famine.

Potentially fatal diseases, such as cholera, spread as the country's public health and sanitation systems collapsed. Following intense international pressure on the Saudi-led coalition, the foreign ministry announced on Monday that for the first time in years, Yemen would start direct flights for seriously ill patients seeking medical treatment in Egypt and Jordan.

To weaken the Houthis, the coalition imposes a blockade on the Sanaa international airport, along with other ports in rebel-held areas. The closure has hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid and barred thousands of sick Yemenis from traveling abroad for urgent care.

"This humanitarian step aims to alleviate the suffering of citizens unable to endure the hardship of traveling by road to other airports," the ministry said of the medical flights, adding that the flights would begin next month.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer, Isabel DeBre in Cairo, contributed reporting.

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