US calls for Yemen ceasefire

Not before time, the US embassy in Sana’a issued a statementyesterday expressing “deep concern” at the continuing conflict between the Yemeni millitary and the Houthi rebels. The statement continued:

We call on both parties to return to the ceasefire that was established last year. In the meantime, both parties should avoid any action that would endanger the civilian population in the affected area. We also call on both parties to ensure the security of local and international relief workers in the region, and the safe passage of emergency relief supplies to camps housing internally displaced persons.

This will be a blow for President Salih who has been seeking to portray his “Operation Scorched Earth” against the Houthis in the same light as his US-backed campaign against al-Qaeda. The US, thankfully, has not been fooled by that.

Meanwhile, Yemeni warplanes continue their bombardment of Saada province. "Heavy air strikes were directed on Saturday against Houthi strongholds, inflicting great losses as well as destroying a number of houses in which these elements were hiding," a military source told Reuters.

A military source quoted on the ruling party’s website said that “armed forces and security were at the same time maintaining their advance towards rebels’ hideouts and tightening the grip on them in a number of areas to which they have escaped and chasing them, forcing them to surrender after sustain[ing] painful strikes by armed forces and security troops.”

These non-specific claims of inflicting “pain” on the rebels in “a number of areas” do not suggest the government forces are making real headway. The rebels, in turn, claim to havecaptured 80 soldiers.

The government has also been trying to make out that the rebels are being helped by Iran, though there is very little firm evidence of this. Weapons captured from the rebels are said to include “some” that were made in Iran, including machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition. Unless the government comes up with more details about the numbers involved we can probably assume that the find was not very significant.

Despite the American ceasefire call, it is difficult to see how the conflict can be ended now without mediation from outside (Qatar, perhaps?). In a broadcast last week to mark the start of Ramadan, President Salih merely reiterated his six demands, adding:

If our proposal is accepted, the government would be responsible for reconstructing all the war-damaged areas as well as paving the way for comprehensive development throughout Saada as soon as possible.

It’s doubtful whether anyone will take that seriously. A similar promise of reconstruction accompanied last year’s ceasefire but went largely unfulfilled. In any case, the government can’t afford it and external donors and investors won’t step in unless they can be confident that fighting will not resume.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 August 2009.