Clearing out civilians

It is now two weeks since Saudi forces first clashed with Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Jabal al-Dukhan (the “Mountain of Smoke”) which straddles the border. Since then, what at first looked like a minor skirmish has turned into a large-scale – and possibly long-term – military operation by the Saudis.

Their immediate goal is to contain the war within Yemen, and to this end they are creating a buffer zone 10km wide on either side of the border in the affected area. That, basically, means clearing it of civilians.

On the Yemeni side, Saudi warplanes have continued their airstrikes – some of them beyond the 10km zone, according to the rebels. Ostensibly this is to “drive back” the rebels but by accident or design it seems to be driving civilians away too. Aid agencies are reporting a new influx of displaced people in Yemen and the estimated total, which had been around 150,000 for several weeks, has now increased to 175,000.

The rebels are also being squeezed by Yemeni forces in the border area. Yesterday, fierce fighting was reported in the Malahidh (Malahit) area which includes Jabal al-Dukhan.

The Saudis insist they are not using ground forces on Yemeni soil (which is probably wise) but on their own territory they seem to be making extensive use of parachute troops. This allows them to reach hotspots quickly without the risk of ambushes along the road.

On the Saudi side of the border there has been a mass evacuation, with 50 schools reported closed and 240 villages cleared of civilians – ostensibly for their own safety. A camp has been set up to receive at least some of those displaced:

General Adel Zamzami, the Director of Civil Defense in Mecca, who is leading the relief efforts in the Jizan province, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of people displaced in the border region continues to increase. He also indicated that there are [November 12] one thousand displaced citizens staying in the accommodation camp [set up for this purpose] which is located in the Ahad al Mousaraha governorate.

Zamzami said that alternative accommodation was being organised in the region to give the displaced citizens an alternative to the camp, including furnished flats and youth hostels.

In addition to that, several thousand people without residence papers have reportedly been pushed across the border into Yemen.

Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, the assistant defence minister, saysthe evacuees will not be allowed to return until the security situation is stable and armed [Houthi] elements have ceased all attempts to infiltrate the Saudi interior. However, the idea of having an unpopulated border area may prove so attractive to the Saudi authorities that the evacuation could become permanent.

The military action on the Saudi side of the buffer zone has two purposes. One, obviously, is to prevent rebels from crossing.The other is “monitoring the civilian population to prevent any attempts to provide the Houthi forces with intelligence or support”. As I explained here earlier, sections of the population in this part of Saudi Arabia have long-standing affinities with their neighbours in northern Yemen – which makes the Saudi authorities wary of them.

During the last fortnight various Houthi arms caches are said to have been discovered on Saudi territory. To some, that suggests the Houthis had definite plans to spread their insurrection within the kingdom (and it is consistent with therecent claim that they are seeking to establish a Shia state which would include parts of both Yemen and Saudi Arabia). On the other hand, it could be that the kingdom was simply a hiding place and the weapons were actually intended for use in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the hunt for “collaborators” appears to be focusingon “Asian and Arab nationals” (i.e. non-Saudis). How much truth there is in these allegations remains to be seen, but blaming foreigners for the kingdom’s problems is more or less standard practice.

There is also an unfortunate man with dishevelled hair and long fingernails who was arrested near the border and has now “confessed” to using magic in support of the Houthis:

The man was initially believed to be a refugee fleeing the conflict but security forces searched him and found amulets, animal remains and scrolls containing symbols. The man later admitted he was planning to place amulets in the conflict zone to help the trouble-makers sneak across the border and defeat the Saudi forces. When asked why he had long nails, he answered that he was obeying the order of the jinns or spirits.

In Saudi Arabia, sorcery is a capital offence.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2009.