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Yemen war: Shells rain down on Taiz residents as allies clash

The murder of a Lebanese aid worker has ultimately led to fighting among the Popular Resistance
A fighter loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Hadi at a position taken from Houthi rebels northwest of Taiz in April 2018 (AFP)

TAIZ, Yemen - The residents of Yemen’s third biggest city have become accustomed to violence since war broke out in 2015. Thousands have died, while many more have been injured or displaced.

But this week has seen a sudden surge in clashes which have left many in Taiz horrified at how fighting has come to residential streets, as groups gathered under the Popular Resistance alliance turn on each other.  

When you leave your house, you feel that you will not return again, so I prevent my children from leaving the house and I bring in anything from outside

- Anwer Sami, accountant

Anwer Sami, who lives in Jamal Street, central Taiz, said many residents had been afraid to leave their homes amid the violence and random shelling from the Cairo Castle, a historic site overlooking Taiz.

"While I was coming back to my home on Monday, clashes broke out near to me,” he said. “I saw civilians were injured in front of me, but I was lucky to escape the clashes."

Shops and business have shut while people anxiously wait for the clashes to end and what passes for regular life to resume. Sami only leaves his house to buy basic food from the nearest market and to go to work as an accountant in the al-Thawra neighbourhood.

"When you leave your house, you feel that you will not return again, so I prevent my children from leaving the house and I bring in anything from outside. This is the most dangerous clashes as no one knows the conflict zones and everywhere can be a conflict zone in any moment."

Release of prisoners sparks clashes

The fierce clashes broke out on Monday between the battalions of Abu al-Abbas, the Salafi leader in Taiz, and the security forces backed by the military police.

They came after state security forces arrested men it suspected of assassinating Hannah Lahoud, an employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on Saturday. Lahoud was shot dead in Al-Dhabab, the southwestern entrance to Taiz, as a team of aid workers were leaving the city.

The suspects belonged to pro-Abbas battalions, who went to the state prison where the suspects were held on Sunday and released them.

Hana Lahoud died as a result of his injuries according to an ICRC statement (ICRC)
That same day Ameen Mahmoud, the governor of Taiz, told security forces to launch a military campaign against the "outlaw" groups in the city, including Salafis, and return public institutions to government.

On Monday the operation began. Taiz' streets soon emptied of civilians: the only people to be seen are fighters, as pro-government forces divide between those who back and those who oppose the security forces. Anecdotal reports suggest that dozens have been killed on both sides.

But the fighting has resulted in deadlock. Abu al-Abbas commands the largest Salafi force within the Popular Resistance and has played a key role in the liberation of Taiz. 

Taiz is a city divided, with different neighbourhoods controlled by different resistance groups. But battalions loyal to Abbas control more than anyone else because they liberated more territory when the Houthis were driven out.

It means that most of Taiz is ultimately controlled by forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, while the Houthi rebels still hold parts of the surrounding area.

For three years Abbas and his forces were armed and paid by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But in October 2017 he was designated an al-Qaeda and Islamic State supporter by the Saudis, their Gulf allies, Qatar and the US.

He now controls most major routes in and out of Taiz, as well as most public institutions, from courts, jails and police stations to schools, hospitals and some military camps west of Taiz.

And his fighters, who are known for their bravery, have offered strong resistance, deploying Kalashnikovs, missiles and tanks among others.

Furthermore, the "outlaw" groups have their own courts and they sentenced some people to death, "all judgments by the courts of the outlaw groups were illegal and they should be punished for those behaviours," the source added.

A source in the leadership of Taiz' state-run Security Office, a branch of the interior ministry, speaking anonymously amid fears for their safety, told MEE: "Abu al-Abbas and other extremists groups in Taiz have their own courts and prisons and they usually protect criminals, so after the assassination of Lahoud, the situation came to a head.

The Hadi government nominally controls much of Taiz - but its power is starting to become fragmented (AFP)
"Each criminal has a group that protects him, but we need all criminals to be subject to fair trial in the official courts and not in the courts of the outlaw groups."

He called for Taiz' residents to back the government against "gangs" and to be patient until the security forces had recaptured the public institutions.

He said that the gangs fire missiles from the Cairo Castle, a historic monument which overlooks Taiz, killing civilians. "But I promise Yemenis that those gangs live their last days in Taiz and then they will return to their proper place in prisons." What is the Cairo Castle? It is a name of a castle overlooks Taiz city.

He said that the groups had their own courts, which handed down illegal judgements, including the death penalty. “They should be punished for such behaviour,” he said.

Forces are evenly balanced

But the fighters under Abu al-Abbas and his supporters consider themselves to be part of the government and said that the security forces should not treat them as "gangs" as it goes against their alliance.

Abdul Samei, a fighter with pro-Abbas battalions, said: "We have been fighting the Houthis since the first day of the war in Taiz and we liberated most of Taiz city while this new governor was living in Canada, and today he came to accuse us of chaos.

"All Yemenis know the role of Abu al-Abbas battalions in the liberation of Taiz. We did not protect any criminals: rather we arrest criminals and keep them in prisons because the security forces release them.”

Samei disputed that the suspects accused of killing Lahoud were responsible and said that the security forces are making random accusations without any evidence.

"The security forces arrested some innocent people so that they can say that they arrested suspects, while the killers have already fled the area. We are part of the government. If the suspects are under our control, then we will keep them in prison."

Taiz has been devastated by fighting, including this attack in June 2017 (AFP)
Abdul Samei said that there had been an agreement over who was responsible for where and that if the governor wanted to renegotiate this then he should have called a meeting.

“He wanted to destroy Taiz. Whatever happens, Taiz' residents are with us and against the new governor because they know our role very well. We will do our best to avoid fighting in residential areas, and we will not hand over any institution to this governor.”

Tense stand-off

The opposing forces are evenly balanced on the ground. Pro-Abbas battalions are backed by other groups including some of the  strongest in Taiz, such as the Hasm groups who fight for religious reasons.

On the opposite side, the security forces are backed by fighters for Islah, the name of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, drawn from its 22 Mechanism Brigade.

The Houthis, who are opposed by everyone in Taiz and backed by Iran, have accused the Popular Resistance of being members of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, despite pro-government denials

And that’s why many political analysts do not believe that the security forces can beat the Salafis. Even if they do, they will then need Salafi support if they are to take on the Houthis.

Many analysts, academics and journalists in Taiz are too afraid to speak out against any groups, given the number of death threats and frequency of assassinations.

One political analyst at Taiz University said that everyone knows that Abbas played a central role in the liberation of the city but are also aware that the Salafis and other groups have operated their own courts and prisons.

If Abu al-Abbas withdraws... it would be easier for the Houthis to take over Taiz

- Political analyst, Taiz University

"Abu al-Abbas battalions are the cornerstone of fighting the Houthis because they have the strongest fighters,” he said. "The security forces will recapture the public institutions easily.

"If Abu al-Abbas withdrew from the public institutions which are under his control, he will also withdraw from the battlefields. The security forces will not be able to fight the Houthis alone and it would be easier for the Houthis to take over Taiz."

He said that the illegal courts and prisons had filled a vacuum in the city during the past three years and become normalised, but that fighting was not the way to bring them back under public control.

"There should be negotiations with all pro-government groups to hand over the public institutions to the government,” he said. “Otherwise there will be chaos in the city which will not serve either the government or the resistance groups."

For residents like Sami, resolution cannot come soon enough.

“All we want is safety," he said. "I call for the warring sides to look at our suffering and stop fighting. We have already fled our houses in the city twice during the last three years. I do not want to flee my house again."

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