Protesters hurl rocks during recent violence in Yemen.
Twenty-one people died in political violence across Yemen this weekend, including southern protesters, northern rebels, tribal paramilitary fighters, and Yemeni soldiers. A mortar attack by al Qaeda in the capital heightened tensions.
In coordinated attacks on Friday, gunmen attacked two security checkpoints in the southern Hadramout province. One soldier died and seven were injured. An interior ministry official indicated that drug smugglers may have been responsible without ruling out the possibility of an al Qaeda attack.
In the northern Yemen, new skirmishes in the three-year Sa’ada war left 18 dead. In southern Yemen on Sunday, security forces killed two protesters following a week of riots that left 14 injured. Also on Sunday, westerners were targeted by mortars launched at a residential compound housing foreigners in the capital Sana’a. No injuries were reported. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility on Monday, Yemeni officials reported.
In response to mounting national unrest, on Friday the Yemeni government arrested a popular comedian, Fahd al Qarni. The Information Ministry revoked the license of a leading independent newspaper, Al Wasat, on Saturday. Internationally renowned journalist and democracy advocate Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani is on trial in Yemen’s specialized terrorism court, charged with “demoralizing the military” with an unpublished article and photographs of civilian causalities in the Sa’ada War.
The fighting in Sa’ada between Zaidi Shiite rebels and pro-government tribal fighters that broke out on Saturday continued into Sunday. Twelve rebels and six tribesmen died. It was the latest in a series of skirmishes that threatens to undermine a cease-fire negotiated in June. The rebels refuse to leave their mountain-top positions until military forces vacate occupied rebel farms and homes. Despite government pledges, hundreds of Zaidis remain imprisoned for suspected sympathy with the rebels, and the province of 700,000 remains under blockade with promised reconstruction yet to begin.
Rocket-propelled grenade rounds destroyed the vacant home of a top Yemeni rabbi in the Al Salem area of Sa’ada on Saturday. Last year, about 45 members of Yemen’s tiny Jewish community were relocated from Sa’ada to a tourist center in the capital at the government’s expense. With over 50,000 internal refugees in Sa’ada, the UN Children’s Fund will begin an outreach program this week. Most of the displaced families are malnourished with many living in tents.
In southern province of Abyan on Sunday, security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing two. Twenty southern demonstrators were killed by police since demonstrations began in August 2007, and a new law holds protest organizers liable for the deaths. In response to widespread riots last week, the military deployed 40 tanks and 100 military vehicles to southern governorates and established numerous security checkpoints. Hundreds were arrested, including activists, opposition party leaders, university professors, and protest organizers.
On Monday, large demonstrations erupted in Dhalie, Taiz, Habileen, Karish, and Zunjubar, and 14 protesters and two policemen were injured in clashes. The crowds were demanding the release of activists imprisoned over the weekend.
Despite regime claims of external interference, the year-long series of demonstrations in the south is prompted by popular frustration over institutionalized discrimination and illegal practices by northern government officials including the theft of land, property, and resources. Southerners are increasingly calling for self-determination and an end to an oppressive northern military presence in the south.
On Sunday, al Qaeda operatives launched several mortars at a residential compound housing western oil workers and diplomats in southwest Sana’a. Two weeks ago, al Qaeda operatives targeted the US embassy in Sana’a with mortars, injuring several schoolgirls when the mortars landed in a nearby school yard. One policeman was killed.
On Monday, Yemen announced the arrest of Abdullah al Reimi, described as a senior al Qaeda leader by Yemen’s Defense Ministry, which said al Reimi was involved in several recent terror attacks.
Al Reimi was among 23 al Qaeda operatives who escaped in February 2006 from a maximum security prison. Al Qaeda has become increasing active in Yemen since the escape.The prisoners reportedly broke through a concrete floor with eating utensils and tunneled hundreds of yards to exit in the woman’s bathroom of a nearby mosque. After the prison break, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was personally negotiating with the escapees for their return.
Terrorists who voluntarily surrendered to Saleh were subsequently released on the security guarantees of family members and in exchange for a pledge not to mount attacks within Yemen. Some were given jobs, cars, money, and even wives in what Yemen claims is a pragmatic bid to reintegrate extremists into society.
Among the escapees was Jamal al Badawi who was sentenced to death in Yemeni court for his role in the 2000 terror attack on the destroyer USS Cole that killed 17 US service members and injured 49 others in the port of Aden. Al Badawi’s sentence was later reduced to 15 years in jail. In October 2007, al Badawi surrendered to authorities and was released, provoking strong protests from the US government. The Yemeni government claims al Badawi was re-imprisoned after being allowed a short visit with his family.
A spate of terror attacks since the prison break has been blamed on several escapees who remained at large, including al Reimi. A few days prior to Yemen’s September 2006 presidential election, two teams of suicide car bombers were thwarted as they approached their targets, oil facilities. Alert security guards shot at the approaching cars, which exploded, and the potential bombers were killed. Yemen declined a US offer of forensic assistance and identified two of the escapees as among the dead.
A suicide car bombing by a teenager in July 2007 in Marib claimed the lives of eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni tour guides. In January 2008, gunmen sprayed a tourist caravan in Hadramout, killing two Belgian women. It is unclear which attacks al Reimi is suspected of or if he will be released on a security guarantee following the announcement of his arrest.
In Internet postings, a group calling itself al Qaeda in Yemen, or the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, claimed responsibility for the murders of the tourists and the recent mortar attack on the US Embassy. The group is led by Nasir al Wahayshi, one of the February 2006 escapees and a former secretary to Osama bin Laden. The group claims to reject negotiations with the Yemeni government. Al Qaeda in Yemen released its first propaganda video in March 2008.
Instability in Yemen can be expected to sharply increase in coming years as the nation’s natural resources decline. Oil, which constitutes over 70 percent of governmental revenue, will run dry in less than a decade and efforts at economic diversification have fallen flat. Yemen is also among the most water scarce nations globally. Ground water is being depleted at a far greater rate than it is replenished. Water rivalry is a primary precursor of tribal violence and civil unrest, which can be expected to increase as both wells and oil run dry.