Almost two months after the Houthis (Shiite faction which stronghold is based in Sa’ada) and the Salafis (Sunni radicals) decided to turn Dammaj and the entire northern Sa’ada province into a battle ground, sources close to the matter have revealed that the death toll has dramatically increased since late earlier this month.
In a matter of weeks, the number of deaths went from well over 160 to well over 260, notwithstanding the number of casualties.
Gulf News quoted engineer Abu Esmail al-Wadae, a spokesman for the Salafists as saying that at least “160 people have died in the besieged village of Dammaj and a 100 in Kutaf,” a nearby village.
What began as a religious and political spat for control in Dammaj, a city which carries much importance for the Salafis as they have established there their main northern religious centre, Dar al-Hadith, has now degenerated into a full blown tribal regional war.
Supported by tribal factions within al-Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni political faction, the Salafis have in their defiance of the Houthis re-ignited a decades’ old tribal feud which roots are embedded in sectarianism. And although both parties have strongly denied that religion has anything to do with the conflict, it has been difficult so far not to believe otherwise.
The Houthis have until now legitimized their attacks against Salafi militants by arguing the religious faction is looking to train an army of Jihadists in its Dar al-Hadith centre ahead of a regional take-over in line with other powerful tribal factions. As far as the Houthis are concerned their stance in Dammaj is self-defence and self-preservation.
As for the Salafis, they have warned that through the Houthis, Iran is playing a dangerous game of cat and mouth against Saudi Arabia and Yemen coalition government as to assert its positions within the region.
“The Houthis tried on Monday to storm Dammaj from a neighbouring village. They used all kinds of weapons; a tank, heavy machine guns and cannons … Four of the injured are in critical condition and the rest sustained medium and light injuries. One of the dead was a foreign student,” al-Wadae told Gulf News.
It is important to note that the Houthis have always denied any blockade against Dammaj. Ali al-Bogheti, a Houthi’ spokesperson told the press, “The media is only talking about Dammaj and forgets to highlight the tight siege on the province of Sa’ada. There is no blockade on food or movement of people to Dammaj. Our embargo is on the supplies of weapons and foreign fighters.”
But the Salafist spokesman denied that the UN delegation had ever visited the besieged village. “They paid a visit to the governor of Sa’ada as well as [Al] Houthis. They did not visit us,” Al Wadae said.
The head of the UN delegation was not available to respond to the accusation.
Also, other two government committees that were deployed in Dammaj several days ago to monitor a ceasefire were due to submit their report to Hadi. The government-run Al Thawra daily reported that the two committees were forced to leave their positions in Dammaj after the resumption of shelling between rivals.
Many previous attempts by the government to broker a ceasefire between the two warring factions collapsed shortly after their declaration.
As clashes have spread across the province, civilians as always suffered the brunt of the crisis and endure dwindling food reserves, shortage of medicine and above all much insecurity.
Despite many warnings from aid organizations, such as the International Committee for the Red Cross, that civilian population are in great distress and thus in need of much help, the coalition government has failed to this day to impose its will and enforce a lasting ceasefire.
This Tuesday President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi was handed yet another alarming situation report on Sa’ada, underscoring the political and institutional fragility which has plagued the government since 2011 uprising.
Eroded by inner tensions, plagued by insecurity and crippled by financial difficulties, Yemen is but hopping on its last leg, whether the leg will hold remains a matter to be seen.
Earlier today (Wednesday), the Gulf Cooperation Council called on all NDC representatives to rally around their government as to save the ailing nation and prevent its complete unravelling. The statement read, “The Supreme Council discussed the latest developments on the Yemeni arena, and urged all the forces participating in the comprehensive national dialogue to give priority to the supreme interests of Yemen, come out with consensus decisions achieve the aspirations of the Yemeni people, and preserve Yemen's security, stability and unity.”
If one thing is absolutely certain is that Yemen’s window of opportunity is fast closing up.