Yemen war: mass displacement fears as fighting intensifies in Marib

Residents in the Yemeni province of Marib are bracing for what could be the worst mass displacement of the war as a Houthi rebel offensive intensifies, leaving more than 2 million people trapped.

Marib, which is controlled by parties loyal to the Yemeni government, has faced intermittent attacks from rebel forces over the last year as the Houthis have steadily gained ground in the area. A renewed assault since last month, 然而, has quickly morphed into one of the most ferocious battles of the seven-year-old war.

The frontline is getting closer to Marib city – a development that threatens to exacerbate what is already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and severely undercut the peace process.

Ballistic missiles, drones and other projectiles are hammering the town and its outskirts, while the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government has stepped up bombing of Houthi positions across the country. Estimates vary widely but several hundred combatants and scores of civilians are believed to have been killed in the violence.

Marib, an oil-rich desert town 75 英里 (120km) east of the capital, Sana’a, was home to approximately 400,000 people before the war. Since local forces managed to fend off an initial Houthi attack in 2015, 然而, the area has been seen as a safe haven for those fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country, and its population has swollen to about 2.7 百万.

有 138 poorly serviced displacement camps in the area, some of which have been hit in the recent violence. Five camps have been abandoned and their residents relocated since February, Yasmin al-Qadhi, the head of the Marib Girls Foundation, said in a media briefing on Wednesday.

Hamas al-Muslimi, a student who has lived in Marib for several years, 说: “We are worried the fighting is going to head towards another bad turn. It’s very unstable. The fighting is just a few kilometres away now … but there is no other place for us to go.”

Yemen’s war broke out in 2014 after the Houthis stormed Sana’a, causing the president to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. It escalated sharply the following year when a coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened to oust the Iran-backed rebels.

The coalition, which is supported and armed by western nations including the UK, has been widely criticised for bombing campaigns that have indiscriminately targeted civilian infrastructure, and for a blockade of Yemen’s airspace, borders and ports that has helped drive half of the 29-million-strong population into hunger.

The Houthis have imposed repressive pseudo-religious rules on people living in areas under their control, the latest of which involve restricting women’s access to birth control, and they are routinely accused of detaining and torturing dissidents and of siphoning off aid.

The escalation in Marib appears to have been triggered by the withdrawal of Saudi troops from the area last year. Most of the conflict’s other frontlines – notably in the cities of Taiz and Hodeidah – have largely been static for years.

“The battles [elsewhere in Yemen] have stopped. This has affected the intensity of the assault on Marib, with all of the Houthi forces concentrated on trying to advance and make a breakthrough into Marib,” said the province’s governor, Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, in a briefing organised by the Sana’a Center thinktank this week.

“There is no doubt that coalition air power [is making a difference in Marib]. Without their support, the situation would look very different.”

Joe Biden is pushing for the resumption of UN-sponsored talks to end the conflict. The Houthis, 然而, have also stepped up attacks on Saudi soil. 在 Iraq, Iran-backed militias have launched a new series of rocket attacks on US installations, putting pressure on a fledgling administration seeking to re-engage Tehran in negotiations over its nuclear programme.

在 2018, a UN-brokered ceasefire managed to stop a coalition assault on Yemen’s crucial port city of Hodeidah. But according to Aradah and a UN source with knowledge of the discussions, the Houthis – who have nothing to lose in the battle for Marib – are unwilling to engage this time.

Marib is the Yemeni government’s only northern stronghold: its fall would greatly weaken their negotiating position and derail diplomatic efforts to end the war.

“If the Houthis seize Marib, all manner of conflict will manifest and transform the war into sectarian, ethnic, and regional struggles … It will take life, and with it the people, to a hell that burns everyone with its fire, directly or not,” said Qadhi.

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