Yemen Tries To Shut Down Shiite Insurgency

The government in Yemen says it will pour its limited resources into the military as it attempts to put down a Shiite insurgency in the north. Yemen also faces violent separatists in the south, and ongoing al Qaida-related terrorist activity. Yemen's neighbors in the Persian Gulf are watching with increasing anxiety.

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We're going to report next on a country with a strategic location and a host of problems. Yemen sits astride the shipping lanes of the Red Sea and it sits beside the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia. The United States considers Yemen an extremely unstable place where terrorists can find refuge. Shiite Muslims have been waging an insurgency in the north. There are violent separatists in the south and an ongoing al-Qaida activity as well. Yemen's neighbors in the Persian Gulf are watching with anxiety, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: Reliable casualty figures from the fighting in the mountainous northwest of Yemen are elusive. So far estimates have ranged from scores to hundreds killed. The announcements from the Yemeni Ministry of Defense tend to be upbeat, claiming that its forces are tightening the noose around insurgents known as the al-Houthi rebels. The area has been closed to journalists, so such claims are all but impossible to check.

But analysts point out that this is the army's sixth war against the Houthis in five years, with no decisive victories to date. Emile Hokayem, political editor of The National, Abu Dhabi's government-owned English-language newspaper, says Yemen's weak central government may be trying to force a military solution where none is possible.

Mr. EMILE HOKAYEM (The National): They're basically using heavy military means, using artillery, Air Force, you know, massive army troop deployments. And actually this exposes the weakness of the Yemeni state more than it shows any real strength.

KENYON: Yemen is among the poorest of Arab countries and can ill afford to channel precious resources to the military. But an attempt at reconciliation with the Houthi rebels has collapsed and secessionist rebels in the south are growing more active as well. South Yemen was a separate country from 1967 to 1990, and southerners attempted to secede again in 1994.

But for Western countries, Yemen's internal difficulties pale beside the concern over al-Qaida-related terrorism. American and European delegations make regular trips to the capital, Sana'a, to urge President Ali Abdullah Saleh to crack down on terrorists. Analyst Hokayem says Yemeni proposals for political solutions have not convinced Western leaders, who see the country as a hot bed of al-Qaida terrorism.

Mr. HOKAYEM: International delegations that visit Yemen always talk about counterterrorism. The key actors overemphasize the security element, which means that any progress they made on that front is not really sustainable, because it is not based on some kind of political reconciliation and settlement.

KENYON: If Western states are tightly focused on terrorism, Yemen's neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council seem unwilling to step into the political vacuum. Some analysts say it's not clear that the regional or international community understands the urgency of Yemen's situation.

Dr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Gulf Research Center): I believe the Houthi rebellion is very dangerous and could threaten not only the regime but the survivability of the whole state.

KENYON: Mustafa Alani at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai says the Houthi rebellion in north Yemen is the most dangerous of the three crises facing the government today. And the government has strongly hinted that the Shiite rebels are receiving political and financial support from Iran.

Dr. ALANI: They have highly qualified, trained, armed militia, and the possibility of outside support. Basically the Iranian support. So if the government's unable to deal decisively with the Houthi rebellion, the whole regime and possibly the whole state will be under a major threat.

KENYON: An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Monday that Tehran would like to see a political solution to the conflict and seemed to suggest that claims of Iranian support for the Yemeni rebels were propaganda.

As the armed forces press ahead with their bombardment of northern Yemen, concern is mounting for civilians in the area. U.N. officials estimate that more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, in the United Arab Emirates.

INSKEEP: And Peter comes to you on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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