Yemen Urged To Seek Peace With Rebels In The North

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There are signs that one of Yemen's many crises, a battle against Shi'ite rebels in the north, may be cooling off. The leader of the rebels says his forces have withdrawn from neighboring Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have claimed victory in purging the rebels from their territory. In Yemen, analysts say the new focus on al-Qaida argues strongly for the government to seek peace with the northern rebels, even though all previous truces have broken down.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And as the war along Yemen's northern border appears to be cooling off, the Yemeni government may shift its focus to fighting al-Qaida in the country. That's what the international community wants. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Yemen's capital, San'a.

PETER KENYON: Information from the front lines in Yemen's northern Saada(ph) province has been sketchy and often unreliable, particularly when Yemen claims to have killed or wounded the rebel leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. He showed up in an Internet posting recently in apparent good health, just before announcing that the Houthi rebels were seeking another truce. Previous postings were much more violent.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

KENYON: This undated video, for instance, shows sporadic but fierce fighting along the sparsely populated mountainous territory along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Both the Yemeni and Saudi militaries have declared victory in the past, but the Saudis have acknowledged some 133 of their soldiers were killed in the fighting. Yemen has been tightlipped on its own casualties, but analysts believe they've been significant.

Yemeni analysts say the Saudi claims of victory should be treated with skepticism, although they welcome the cessation of hostilities.

Mr. ABDULLAH AL-FAQUI(ph) (Analyst, San'a University): Well, it has been, I mean, for them a defeat. But I think if they continue it, it will be even more dangerous.

KENYON: Analyst Abdullah al-Faqui at San'a University says the longer the Saudis fight - and fail to decisively defeat the rebels - the more they could be exposed to other security risks, such as uprisings among unhappy tribes living on the Saudi side of the border.

Mr. AL-FAQUI: Because if the Saudis couldn't defeat the Houthis, which is like a small group, how about other (unintelligible) groups within Saudi Arabia? So basically for the Saudis, it's the least expensive, you know, move.

KENYON: If the Saudis, however, go ahead with plans to build a new military base in Jizan, not far from the border with Yemen, analysts here say that will signal that they're serious about not just Houthi incursions but any potential unrest along the border.

The Houthis began fighting Yemeni forces in 2004, saying they had no choice but to defend their people against systematic marginalization by the government. Periodic truces were declared and broken. Some Yemeni defense officials continue to oppose another truce, arguing that previous periods of calm simply allowed the rebels to regroup and rearm.

But with the worldwide focus now on the growing threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, analyst Abdullah al-Faqui says it may now be time for Yemen to end hostilities in the north.

Mr. AL-FAQUI: So basically what's happening is if you have a weak government like the Yemeni one and then, you know, it faces a lot of, you know, challenges at the same time, there's no place for al-Qaida and the government agenda. But now, I mean, you know, the only place that's (unintelligible) should be for al-Qaida because that's the priority.

KENYON: For certain sectors of the Yemeni government, however, fighting al-Qaida has never been a priority. It remains to be seen if that will change now that international pressure and very large amounts of aid money are linked to the effort to deny al-Qaida a safe haven in Yemen.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, San'a.

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