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YEMEN: Northern tribes reach a truce in clashes that have killed at least 60

July 25, 2010 |  9:25 am
President saleh photo Tribal chiefs reached a truce Sunday to stop fighting in northern Yemen, where clashes between government-backed clans and Houthi rebels have killed at least 60 people. It is unclear if the agreement will hold – cease-fires in the region are frequently ignored.

The latest round of bloodshed broke out last week in the tribally dominated provinces of Amran and Saada governorates after the government accused the Houthi tribal alliance of assassinating a pro-government sheik and his son. 

The volatile region on the border with Saudi Arabia has undergone six outbursts of fighting since 2004 as government troops and their supporters have sought to defeat the Houthis, a Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam that claims ill-treatment by the government and controls vast swaths of territory.

Saudi Arabia was drawn into the fighting last year when the rebels crossed the border and attacked Saudi guards. The kingdom claimed victory over the Houthis after months of air strikes that left villages in rubble and scattered unexploded ordnance across the rugged terrain.  

More than 300,000 people have been displaced, living in camps or with host families in deteriorating conditions. The World Food Program, strained by the increased demand for food and water aid, has cut rations to the displaced people by half. Lack of funding threatens to stop aid entirely. 

"What's worrying about the clashes is the intensity, and this could trigger a seventh round of war ... It is very likely we would have a new round of displacement," said WFP country director Giancarlo Cirri, speaking from Saada.

The new truce comes after the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, flew to Yemen last week offering to resurrect a peace deal brokered in Doha in 2008. The agreement, which includes an end to hostilities and amnesty to rebels, was welcomed by some groups but greeted with skepticism by Hassan Zaid, a politician with ties to the Houthis.

Speaking in the capital Sana, Zaid said that without Saudi involvement, mediations were meaningless, as Riyadh has influence over tribal and political power. He insisted that there was a government campaign against the Houthis, and not just tribal feuding. 

Zaid added that "if the government insists upon a seventh war, God willing, we will take the beaches. The Houthis occupy land the size of Lebanon, it is enough to create a state."

However, political analyst Abdulghani Iryani was optimistic about the Doha agreement. He said that factionalism within national defense forces had been part of the reason for the fighting. Soldiers' loyalties were split between two political groups, and each faction had encouraged the Houthis to fight the other, aggravating the violence.

This factionalism, said Iryani, was now at an end, with one side victorious and both exhausted from fighting. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, facing Islamist threats and secessionism in the south, is keen to avoid further fighting, as is Saudi Arabia, whose forces took months to defeat the Houthis in 2009.

Looking back on centuries of tribal bloodshed in northern Yemen, Iryani conceded that a peaceful future was unlikely, and the best hope was for tribesmen to keep violence to a minimum. "In that area," he said, "war is a way of life. It's not a breakdown of the system, it is the system."

-- Alice Fordham in Sana, Yemen

Photo: Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Credit: AFP