Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Broader sectarian rift feared in northern Yemen

Tom Finn
December 20, 2011
SAADA, Yemen (Reuters) - Their faces bruised and limbs scarred by bullet wounds, scores of young men writhed in agony on shabby mattresses at a Yemeni hospital in Saada, victims of a conflict largely hidden from the world.
Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Yemen's northern mountains near Saudi Arabia had fought government forces for years until an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh this year gave them a free hand in the lawless frontier province of Saada.
In recent months the conflict, next door to the world's top oil exporter, has taken on a dangerous sectarian twist.
The Houthis, as the rebels are known after the clan of their leaders, have been fighting Salafis, a hardline Sunni Islamic group whose creed is similar to that of Saudi Arabia.
Each side offers conflicting accounts on everything from air strikes to motives.
The Houthis accuse the Salafis of receiving funds and arms from Saudi Arabia, while the Salafis say their religious schools have been shelled by the Shi'ite rebels.
The Houthis deny charges by the Yemeni government and some of its regional allies that they have ties to non-Arab, mostly Shi'ite Iran. The Houthis adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, doctrinally distinct from that practiced in Iran.
In the Saudi-funded hospital, Salafi and Houthi fighters lay side by side, nursing wounds from renewed clashes in the Salafi stronghold Damaj that coincided with a visit to Houthi leaders this month by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar.
Some muttered prayers to themselves and stared vacantly at the ceiling. Most were unwilling or unable to talk. A man named Ali, with a pale face and a thick black beard who identified himself as a "supporter" of the Salafis in Damaj, accused the Houthis of trying to "exterminate Sunnis from Saada."
Although Saleh has signed a deal to hand power to his deputy after 10 months of protests, Yemen is still roiled by a southern separatist movement and al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized territory in the south, as well as the Houthi revolt.
While Saudi Arabia was worried by the potential breakup of Yemen, it was particularly alarmed by the prospect of a Shi'ite mini-state springing up on its border, said Hasan Zaid of Yemen's Shi'ite-dominated al-Haq party.
"They hope by funding the Salafis they can weaken the growing strength and popularity of the Houthi movement," he said.
Saudi Arabia intervened militarily against the Houthis in 2009 before a ceasefire took hold last year.
Residents said the latest bout of sectarian violence erupted in early October when a boy walked into a Salafi-controlled medical center brandishing a Houthi protest sign.
The boy was assaulted by the Salafis, residents said, triggering an armed conflict, which has continued sporadically in spite of nearly a dozen mediation attempts.
"Negotiations have reached a dead end," said Mohammed Abdul-Azizi, a youth activist who accompanied an eight-person delegation from Sana'a to mediate.
"Too many people have interests in this conflict."
With the government distracted by months of mass protests demanding an end to Saleh's 33 years in office, the Houthis have been able to extend their grip over most of Saada province.

Gulf countries set up $5b fund for Jordan, Morocco

Tuesday, 20 Dec 2011
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Gulf Arab countries say they have created a $5 billion development fund to support projects in Jordan and Morocco.
Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, the general secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council, says the $5 billion will be divided equally between the two countries. The GCC wrapped up a summit meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday.
In May, al-Zayani said the six-member GCC accepted the two countries' request to join, but some procedures had to be completed before final approval. Unlike the other GCC members, Jordan and Morocco are not oil exporters.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the GCC will also help Yemen during its transitional period. Yemen's president has agreed to transfer power by Friday.

Yemen mobile firm Sabafon alleges govt vendetta

Tue Dec 20, 2011
* Sabafon says a quarter of sites attacked by govt-allied forces
* Sabafon subscribers cannot phone abroad
* Calls to and from landlines also barred
* Ruling party denies deliberately targeting Sabafon
By Matt Smith
DUBAI, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Yemeni mobile operator Sabafon said on Tuesday that its facilities had come under repeated attack by state forces because of its chairman's support for protests aiming to end the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A spokesman for Sabafon, which is 27-percent owned by Bahrain Telecommunications Co (Batelco), told Reuters from Sanaa the company's headquarters had been hit three times by rocket-propelled grenades this year.
He said more than 250 transmission towers and other sites -- about a quarter of its facilities -- had been subject to shelling, gunfire and looting, killing one employee.
Sabafon subscribers cannot receive or make calls to Yemen landlines or phone abroad, illustrating the toll nearly a year of strife in the impoverished Gulf nation has taken on basic services.
"The damage continues ... employees were afraid to attend the headquarters and many sites were shut down, which dramatically affected operations and the company's ability to provide services," said the spokesman.
"These led to an exodus of subscribers to other providers. These unlawful measures are part of a punishment by the authorities on Sabafon because of the position of its chairman, who supports the peaceful popular revolution in Yemen."
An official of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) denied Sabafon was deliberately targeted, and that whatever damages it may have suffered came in the context of hostilities instigated by gunmen allied to Sabafon chairman and major shareholder Hamid al-Ahmar.
Al-Ahmar is the brother of Sadeq al-Ahmar, a leader of the powerful Hashed tribal confederation and a rival of the outgoing Saleh. This month, Yemen's new unity government met for the first time and a presidential election is due in February.
The government claims the Ahmar family was behind a June assassination attempt that left Saleh seriously injured.
The bomb attack capped weeks of fighting between forces loyal to him and those allied to the al-Ahmar family. Skirmishes between the two sides have erupted periodically since then.
Abdulhafeedh al-Nahari, vice-spokesman of the ruling GPC, said fighting in the capital had damaged infrastructure.
"He (Hamid al-Ahmar) attacked government buildings in the capital, the government responded in self-defence ... this created bad relations with the government," Nahari said. "All the telecommunication companies in Yemen have suffered as a result of this crisis."
As well as restrictions on making phone calls, Sabafon subscribers are also barred from mobile Internet access.
Sabafon lost has lost "hundreds of thousands" of subscribers as a result of this disruption, the company spokesman said. It had 3.6 million customers at the end of 2010, according to Batelco's annual report.
"The tribal and political fractures in Yemen are also seen in the country's telecoms sector -- Ahmar controls Sabafon, while the government controls the landline infrastructure and the international gateway," said a telecoms analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This shows Yemen really needs the rule of law and democracy, because vital sectors such as telecoms shouldn't be left to the whims of individuals. Disruption will likely continue until the political situation is resolved."
Sabafon competes against MTN Yemen, a unit of South Africa's MTN, and state-run Yemen Mobile.

Yemeni general backs peace deal, 10 militants killed – msnbc.com

20 December 2011
SANAA — A dissident army general said on Sunday he backed a peace accord signed last month, lending support to efforts to pull Yemen from the brink of civil war, as officials said ten Islamist militants died in attacks by government forces in the south.
General Ali Mohsen’s announcement came one day after both his forces, and troops loyal to outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh, began withdrawing from the capital Sanaa as part of the Gulf-brokered peace deal.
“We are ready to support the Gulf initiative, which was bolstered by Security Council resolution 2014,” Mohsen told reporters at a news conference in Sanaa, referring to the resolution adopted by the U.N. body in October endorsing the Gulf peace proposal.
He was speaking before a meeting with representatives of the European Union, the Gulf Cooperative Council and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, as part of efforts to win support from factions excluded from the peace accord signed in Saudi Arabia last month.
The diplomats had earlier met separatist leaders in Aden and U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar visited Shi’ite rebels in Saada province in northern Yemen.
Last month, Saleh signed the accord to transfer his powers to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ushering in an opposition-led Yemeni government to lead the country to early presidential elections in February 2012.
If the deal goes according to plan, Saleh will become the fourth Arab ruler brought down by mass demonstrations that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.
Mohsen’s troops had been among the opposition forces controlling the Yemeni capital’s northern half, where they had battled the pro-Saleh army for control over Sanaa.
Under supervision of a military committee set up by the Gulf peace deal, Mohsen’s troops had pulled back on Saturday.
The new government faces challenges from a southern separatist movement that wants to revive the Yemeni socialist state that existed before Saleh united it with the capitalist north under his rule in 1990.
Months of protests against Saleh’s rule have alarmed Saudi Arabia and the United States, which had seen Saleh as a bulwark against al Qaeda in the region.
Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia shares U.S. fears that more instability in Yemen could embolden the country’s al Qaeda wing — against which Washington has waged a campaign of drone strikes — in a country sitting next to oil shipping routes.
In the country’s south, ten fighters from the Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militant group linked to al Qaeda, were killed when government forces shelled their positions in Zinjibar, capital of the southern province of Abyan, a local official said. Fighters also clashed with the army, he said.
The clashes followed fighting on Saturday in which two government soldiers were killed and six were wounded.
Residents in the town of Jaar, located some 15 km (10 miles)north of Zinjibar and which is under the control of the Islamist militants, said they saw fighters bury fallen comrades.
“In the last three days, we saw the militants bury the bodies of several dead fighters,” said Abdul Khaleq, a local resident. “They were weeping bitterly for their dead as they read (verses from) the Koran.”