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Here come the guns: Yemeni civilians watch skies for Saudi weapon drops

Taiz villagers compete with militants to claim weapons air-dropped by the Saudi coalition. In this war-torn country, one sniper rifle can fetch $4,000
Yemen's Popular Resistance fighters are short on weaponry (AFP)

TAIZ, Yemen - The roar of the Saudi jets broke through the darkness and the still of night, as they launched their lethal payloads over rural Taiz. But instead of running from the target zone, civilians ran towards it.

This sortie was not a bombing run. It did not drop cluster munitions nor guided missiles - the Saudis instead dropped guns and ammunition to their Popular Resistance allies, and the civilians were intent on grabbing them first. 

Abdulwali al-Thobhani did not sleep that night, 11 April, as he and dozens of others from the village of Thobhan waited for the drop.

"Jets dropped weapons in nearby Bani Ghazi village the day before," he told Middle East Eye. "People told us jets would do the same in our village, so we decided to wait."

At 3am crates began landing by parachute in farmland near Thobhan. And the race was on.

"The jets dropped five crates, and when the resistance fighters were carrying the first three to their cars, we took the others," Thobhani said.

"The resistance fighters tried to prevent us by firing, but most of us had already escaped with the weapons, and I was one of them. "

Each crate held 16 wooden boxes, each of which contained either a rocket or a sniper rifle.

The villagers do not care for the rockets, which do not sell. Sniper rifles, however, fetch a million riyals - $4,000 - on the black market. A small fortune in Yemen.

Before the war, high-powered sniper rifles were rare even in Yemen, a country with the third highest gun-ownership rate in the world. Now every local market has them.

Thobhani's luck did not hold this time. 

"I was hoping to get a sniper rifle. Unfortunately, I got a rocket that I cannot sell," he said, adding that he handed it over to the resistance as soon as he could.

Jail or no jail

Those who hit the jackpot, however, face retribution from the resistance, which is desperate for weapons to confront its Houthi movement nemesis. 

"Within two days, resistance fighters arrested most of the residents in the village, so some of them returned the weapons while others are still inside the jail," Thobani said.

Ahmed al-Samei, a leader of the resistance in al-Shimayateen district, said his local fighters knew very well where the weapons were being stashed in villages like Thoban, and acted accordingly.

"We choose the areas of the drops, and we chose Thobhan as the residents are supporters of the resistance, and only some of them are greedy people and want to steal weapons," he told MEE.

"Some fighters try to shoot the residents, but we prevented them to avoid deaths, and we only fired in the air to scare the residents."

Some of those arrested are still in nearby al-Nashama jail and were being investigated, he said.

They join villagers from nearby Bani Hammad, who were rounded up by resistance fighters on 8 April after taking weapons from another airdrop.

Samei added: "We are in dire need of weapons and there are some loyal people who provided us with their personal rifles, while some others who do not care about Taiz are trying to steal the weapons."

The resistance also rounded up villagers in Bani Hammad area, after they took weapons from another Saudi airdrop.

Whether those arrested by the resistance will see justice appears about as pot luck as finding a valuable rifle or a worthless rocket.

The brother of one accused man told MEE that there was not a single weapon inside his brother's house at the time of his arrest.

I just buy the rifles, I cannot judge if those selling are fighters with the Popular Resistance. Arms dealer, Taiz

"There are no courts in Taiz, so I cannot defend my brother, and he is at the mercy of the resistance, as the resistance controls everything in the rural districts," he said.

Unlike courts in Houthi-controlled areas, those in Taiz province were closed after the war began a year ago. 

Ahmed Obaid, a retired military officer, said that the Popular Resistance suffered from inexperience as much as their lack of weapons.

He said the work of the resistance reflects the fact that they do not obey one leader and the fighters are working individually, and this made them seem weak.

"If the resistance has one leadership, they could force the rural courts to resume work, but they cannot because another group of the resistance will intervene in the work of the judges," Obaid added.

And as to who ultimately benefits, an arms trader in al-Nashama market told MEE that he made a tidy profit from the new sniper rifle trade.

"I just buy the rifles, I cannot judge if those selling are fighters with the Popular Resistance," the trader added.