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'Absurd front': Thousands besieged in north Yemen battle that no one can win

Pro-government fighters opened up front in Houthi-held territory, leading to siege leaving more than 100 civilians dead
A displaced Yemeni girl, who fled due to the fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, looks from inside a tent in a safer part of Hajjah province (AFP)
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Sanaa

Thousands of civilians are believed to be besieged in a northwestern province in Yemen after a month-long battle between Houthis and pro-government fighters led by a local tribal leader who are trying to kick the rebels out.

More than 100 residents have been killed in the ongoing fighting in the Hajawr area of Hajjah province, while many others are trapped, living off food stocked in their homes to survive after the Houthis imposed a siege.

Analysts say the fighters, which number in the hundreds in the face of thousands of Houthis, are unlikely to win, and describe the battle as an “absurd front” which will only benefit arms dealers and political leaders living abroad.

Reached by phone, a resident in Hajawr told Middle East Eye: “No one can imagine the bad situation of civilians. They cannot flee their houses. They can only wait for death inside their houses.

“Injured people cannot receive treatment. No food or any kind of supplies is allowed to arrive in the area,” he added.

map of Hajawr

The Houthis took control of most of Hajjah province, and the entire Hajawr area, in September 2014, the same month the movement seized the capital Sanaa, and have held the area ever since. Occasional opposition to Houthi control over the past five years has been quickly put down.

But earlier this month, a local tribal leader, Sheikh Abu Muslim al-Za’akari - one of several Salafi leaders in the area who oppose the Houthis - rallied a group of fighters from Hajawr to return home and open a front against the rebels.

'Are you watching? Return all to defend your women, children and dignity'

- Sheikh Abu Muslim al-Za’akari

“To Hajawr’s residents, who are fighting with the militias in all fronts, I am bringing good news to you that [the Houthis] have opened a new front against your relatives in Hajawr, under the pretext they are American and Israel,” he posted on Facebook

“Are you watching? Return all to defend your women, children and dignity.”  

The battles were limited in the beginning of the month, but gradually spread across several villages in Hajawr’s Kasher district, leaving dozens killed and injured.

Over the weekend, the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes targeting the Houthis in the district and fighting erupted nearby, although it has calmed in recent days.

Abu Sumood, a Houthi leader in Hajjah province, confirmed by phone that battles were ongoing in Hajawr and said his group had so far held back from storming the area in order to protect civilians.

“AnsarAllah [the Houthis] are the authorities in Yemen and we should behave in a reasonable way with any outlaw groups,” he said.

“A group in Hajawr is trying to create chaos and we have not behaved fiercely with that group yet. We are giving them a chance to calm down or surrender. If they don’t, we will use force.”

A Yemeni woman, displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country, in a camp for displaced people in Hajjah (AFP) 
A Yemeni woman, displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country, in a camp for displaced people in Hajjah (AFP) 

Abu Sumood confirmed: “We can storm the area in a few hours if not minutes, but we want to end the chaos with less losses and we want the civilians themselves to reject the outlaw people.”

The Hajjar resident said Al-Za’akari had been unwise to open a front in a residential area, surrounded by Houthis in all directions.

“The battles are ongoing fiercely and the Houthis are besieging the area. By the end, the Houthis will win the battles,” he said, adding that he was not aligned with one side or the other, but believed civilians “are the main victims of these battles”.

Last Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition airdropped medicine, food and weapons for the first time in Hajawr, but the resident said the supplies were only for the fighters – and not enough to actually help them win.

“Even the fighters, they cannot win the battles as they are fighting by using their personal weapons and the Houthis face them with different kinds of weapons.”

'Towards the worst'

Some anti-Houthi fighters in Hajawr had also called on the Yemeni government earlier to supply weapons that could “liberate” Hajjah from the Houthis earlier this month, but the government has not helped yet.

While analysts who support the Yemeni government have encouraged Al-Za’akari and his fighters to carry on, pro-Houthis observers believe the Houthis will prevail and have advised him to surrender.

An independent political analyst based in Sanaa told MEE on condition of anonymity because of security concerns: “I can say that both warring sides are leading the country towards the worst and they open new fronts without any plans.

'The pro-Hadi leaders encourage tribes to open fronts to gather some money from Saudi and UAE and this is the aim of the battles in Hajawr while civilians are suffering' 

- Yemeni analyst

“We are not stupid to believe the pro-[Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour] Hadi leaders who say dozens of fighters in Hajawr can win a battle against thousands of Houthi fighters who have all kinds of weapons.”

He accused pro-Hadi leaders who live abroad, some of whom still hold positions in the Yemeni government, of using local fronts like Hajawr to draw money from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The pro-Hadi leaders encourage tribes to open fronts to gather some money from Saudi and UAE and this is the aim of the battles in Hajawr while civilians are suffering,” he said.

The political analyst, who does not believe the war can be ended militarily, advised all Yemenis to stand against the warring sides and try to avoid creating any further fronts.

“I hope Yemenis do their best to avoid any further absurd fronts between Yemenis as the only beneficiary of this war is the arms dealers and the main loser is Yemenis,” he said.