Saudis Flee Border Fighting With Yemen Rebels
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And for the first time since the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, Saudi Arabia is exercising its military power. Last month, the kingdom began air strikes against rebels from neighboring Yemen. The rebels have been fighting against Yemen's central government, off and on, for the past five years. The Saudis say the rebels invaded Saudi soil. The rebels claim the Saudis attacked them first. Kelly McEvers traveled to the border between the two countries, to a camp for Saudis who've been displaced by the fighting.
KELLY MCEVERS: This is not your typical refugee camp. Each of the 500 tents is air conditioned, there's a newly paved parking lot for refugees cars and trucks, janitors collect garbage and there are three hot meals a day. There's also a media trailer, equipped with computers and half a dozen TV screens.
Inside, everyone is on message. We don't want any negative news, one official says. Instead, the message should go something like this: The rebels in Yemen, known as Houthis, provoked this conflict by sneaking over the border and trying to seize a strategic mountain. Saudi Arabia launched air strikes to defend itself and now it's doing its best to care for its people.
However the fighting started, Saudi officials evacuated more than 200 villages along the Saudi-Yemen border and brought them here to the camp.
Mr. AHMED MOHAMED(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Like many Saudi villagers in this region, Ahmed Mohamed says he's ready to take up his own gun and fight.
Mr. MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: I would lose everything, right now, to defend my country, he says.
Mr. ABDULI ALI MOHAMED MUJASHI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Abduli Ali Mohamed Mujashi says he heard bombs in the middle of the night. He walked five miles to the camp with his elderly mother in law, pregnant wife and five young children.
Mr. MUJASHI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: These Houthis, they aren't even Muslims, he says. They will be judged harshly. The Houthis say Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni government by allowing it to use Saudi territory to bomb the rebels. So, the rebels say, they had no choice but to invade Saudi Arabia. Gregory Johnson is a researcher on Yemen at Princeton. He says the Saudis are very keen to control the narrative right now.
Mr. GREGORY JOHNSON (Princeton University): You have individuals in the southern part of what's now Saudi Arabia which in fact used to be a part of Yemen. Since you have a lot of mixed loyalties - and I don't believe the Saudi government is always quite sure exactly how much the people on the Yemeni border are loyal to the Saudi king.
MCEVERS: If Saudi leaders are so concerned about domestic support, why are they involved in a conflict that most Western and Arab analysts agree is a Yemeni war about Yemeni grievances? Here it's widely assumed that the Houthi rebels are backed by Saudi Arabia's arch rival, Iran. Saudi official and civilians alike say Iran is using the Houthis as a proxy, as it does in other regional conflicts like Lebanon and Iraq. But Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center says up until now there's no direct evidence that Iran is officially backing the Houthis.
Mr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Gulf Research Center): But we have circumstantial evidence that money was supplied (unintelligible) Houthi from Iran, non-official NGOs, religious NGOs in Iran. We have the Iranian media supporting the Houthi, clearly supporting the Houthi.
MCEVERS: Alani says this unofficial support could at some point become official now that the conflict has widened beyond Yemen's borders. Analysts say this all raises the question of whether the Saudi involvement in this war was well thought out or merely a knee-jerk reaction by a well-equipped but long-dormant military. Either way, most Western analysts agree that Saudi involvement will only prolong the conflict by forcing more Yemenis into the fight. Again, Gregory Johnson�
Mr. JOHNSON: Saudi Arabia has a very complicated history with Yemen, and many individuals who are even quite anti-Houthian, they would in a sense almost welcome the opportunity to see Saudi Arabia get its nose bloodied a little bit in the some of the fighting with these�
(Soundbite of chatter)
MCEVERS: Back at the camp, the hot day cools as the sun goes down. Men emerge from their tents to apply for cash payments from the Saudi government - about $300 a week per family. The Saudis have taken great pains to say this conflict is nearly over, that the so-called infiltrators have been dealt with and it's just a matter of time before life goes back to normal. But after touring the camp late last month, the governor of the region ordered 500 more tents to be erected and more permanent structures to follow.
For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers.
MONTAGNE: Here's another story we're following today. A suicide bomber struck at a graduation ceremony in the capital of Somalia. Three government ministers were killed, at least 14 people died in all. The country's information minister told the Associated Press what happened today is a national disaster. Somalia's U.N.-backed government has been battling Islamic insurgents and there have been a number of deadly attacks in recent months.
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