More than 100 civilians in the Yemeni province of Marib have been killed or injured in the past month as fighting rages for the country’s last major government-loyal stronghold.
Marib city has been under sustained attack since the beginning of the year from Houthi rebels, whose forces have steadily closed in on the central desert area on three different fronts.
The fight for control of the oil-rich region has become one of the bloodiest and most important battles of Yemen’s seven-year-old civil war. If the rebels succeed in taking Marib they will have beaten the Yemeni government and Saudi-backed coalition, which has managed to cling on to the city with the use of intensive airstrikes.
On Sunday, at least 29 civilians were killed in a rebel missile strike which hit a mosque and religious school to the south of Marib city. The unverified death toll for all sides is now believed to run into the tens of thousands.
“The situation has become very bad. It’s not just the fighting, it’s the economic collapse too,” said Hamas al-Muslimi, a 23-year-old student living in Marib but originally from Dhamar.
“We used to be able to buy five pieces of bread for 100 rials [£0.30], but now we can only buy two.”
For several years, Marib’s relative quiet and prosperity made it a beacon for more than 1 million Yemenis fleeing fighting in other parts of the country, like Muslimi and her family. Many live in vast displacement camps with no water or health facilities and no schools, and have been cut off from the little aid they do receive by Houthi advances over the last two months.
According to aid agencies, about 10,000 people have been displaced in October alone, in what amounts to the biggest wave of displacement recorded in a single month this year.
“Our staff can reach only a small portion of those in need in Marib, and what we provide is just a drop in the ocean compared to the staggering needs,” Erin Hutchinson, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Yemen, said in a statement.
“We call on all parties to spare civilians and ensure that we can keep reaching them with life-saving aid. We also call on the international community to provide the promised funding to keep Yemenis alive in this hour of need.”
Yemen’s war between the Iranian-backed Houthi movement and forces loyal to the exiled Yemeni government broke out in 2014 but deteriorated sharply after the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition the following year. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have imposed strict religious edicts on the people living under their control, while the coalition has been widely criticised for bombing civilian infrastructure.
The conflict has since spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 70% of the population of 30 million in need of aid to survive. About half are food insecure, with 5 million already starving in pockets of famine-like conditions.
Prior to the Houthi offensive on Marib, the war had largely deteriorated into a stalemate.
Intensive UN-brokered talks in April and May to discuss a ceasefire for both Marib and the wider country stalled after the Houthis rejected a deal. Diplomatic observers fear that the rebel leadership has since decided that escalating efforts to capture Marib will transform the bargaining calculus.
The UK, which is the current penholder for Yemen at the UN security council, has licensed an estimated £20bn in arms exports to member states of the coalition since the conflict began. Earlier this year, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office slashed the UK aid budget for Yemen by 60%.