Menace of Houthi-laid land mines adds to Yemeni misery

A member of the UAE armed forces gets ready before searching for land mines in Al-Mokha, Yemen. (Reuters)
Updated 08 March 2018

Menace of Houthi-laid land mines adds to Yemeni misery

AL-MOKHA, Yemen: Yasser Yassin was driving along a road on Yemen’s rugged Red Sea coast when a blast sent his Toyota Hilux flying into the air.
When he regained consciousness, the 30-year-old merchant realized he couldn’t move his right leg or see with his right eye.
Yassin’s car had hit an anti-tank mine, one of thousands left by Houthi fighters three months earlier when they conceded the Al-Khoukha port area to southern Yemeni forces, their civil war adversaries in that part of Yemen.
His recovery has been far from straightforward, despite help from an anti-Houthi military coalition whose leading members are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“They (coalition) took me to Aden where they fixed my leg, but there was an issue with the metal prosthesis and my leg got infected,” Yassin, leaning on his crutches, said while visiting Al-Mokha hospital for a follow-up after the blast in February.
Yemen has been devastated by three years of conflict in which President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government, backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, is fighting to drive the Houthis out of cities they seized in 2014 and 2015.
The United Nations says the war has created the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, and rights groups say both sides have inflicted indiscriminate violence, including, in the Houthis’ case, through the use of banned anti-personnel mines.
Houthi officials did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Both sides in the conflict deny accusations by human rights groups that they have carried out war crimes.
The results of land mine use can be seen in the hallways of the hospital in Al-Mokha town, located not far north of the strategic Bab Al-Mandab strait, which were crowded with victims and visitors on a recent visit by Reuters.
Doctors and medical staff made their way between armed men to provide first aid to patients wounded by land mines, as well as by shrapnel and mortars.
“I was walking with my brother, I stepped on a mine and it went off,” said Rashida, a 13-year-old girl fitted with a rudimentary prosthetic leg.
Her father said she had never attended school because the closest one to their village in Taiz province was 30 km (18 miles) away and had closed down after the Houthis invaded Taiz.
Residents and medics from Al-Mokha and nearby villages said land mines had caused more casualties than the fighting in the area, which has seen the Houthis pushed out of some Red Sea coastal areas since 2016.
The explosives were buried randomly across the region, including in residential areas, playgrounds and under trees where many Yemenis traditionally sit to chew the local mild narcotic qat leaves, they added.
It is not clear how many people have been killed by these weapons, but two doctors and a government official said dozens had died just in the coastal areas of Al-Mokha, Al-Khoukha and Al-Heiss since Houthi forces started withdrawing in early 2017.
The UAE armed forces and Yemeni troops said they harvest between 250 and 300 land mines every week in the western region. More than 40,000 devices have been neutralized since coalition-allied forces took control of the Red Sea coast in a series of battles starting in 2016.
Around 90 percent of the land mines were locally made and most of the victims are civilians, they said.
“They also have Russian-made land mines which they took from government warehouses when they invaded the capital Sanaa,” said an expert in explosives in the UAE armed forces, who declined to be named.
The UAE has been arming, training and paying thousands of fighters from southern provinces, called the Southern Resistance, to capture western coastal areas and push the Houthi armed movement back to their homeland in the north.
The war is entering its fourth year this month and, despite Houthi losses in parts of western Yemen, they still control Yemen’s most populated areas.
Millions of civilians are trapped under heavy coalition air strikes, as well as a tough crackdown by the Houthis. Famine, cholera and diphtheria affect about eight million people, including two million severely malnourished children.
Last year, Human Right Watch called on the Houthis to cease using land mines and observe the 1997 Ottawa Convention ban on anti-personnel mines, which took effect in 1999. Yemen signed the treaty in 1998.
“Most of the victims who survived lost one or two of their legs, and many are crippled and cannot do any physical work,” said Ghassan Massoudi, director of Al-Mokha hospital. Massoudi said the military wing of the hospital was treating also civilian land mine victims.
That side of the facility gets most of the attention from the internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition, as it treats fighters from the frontlines in Al-Jarahi district — 90 km (56 miles) away — where the Southern Resistance and allies from fellow coalition member Sudan face mortar bombs and heaving shelling from the Houthi side.
Yassin said the coalition would not pay for his trip to India — where many Yemenis seek medical treatment — when he needed new surgery on his leg and eye, as he was not a fighter.
So he paid his own way.
“I sold the remains of the car, my mother and wife’s gold and went to India where I spent $8,500. I still lost my eye,” he said.


Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

Updated 47 min 2 sec ago

Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS: Rarely has the outcome of an election been so uncertain in Tunisia, the cradle and partial success story of the Arab Spring, as some seven million voters head to the polls Sunday to choose from a crowded field.
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living, and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August is politically inspired.
The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes, albeit one with few clear political differences, brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi.
He had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but one thing appears sure — many voters remain undecided, due to difficulties in reading a shifting political landscape.
“I am undecided between two candidates — I will decide in the polling booth,” smiled one citizen, Sofiene, who added “honest candidates don’t have much chance of winning.”
Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.
One key newcomer is Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party.
Instead, he has gone door-to-door to drum up support for his conservative platform.
Another independent candidate is Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who is running for the first time.
However, he has the backing of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
The crowded field of 26 has been narrowed slightly by the last minute withdrawal of two candidates in favor of Zbidi — former political adviser Mohsen Marzouk and businessman Slim Riahi, just ahead of Saturday’s campaign blackout.
But it is Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of the campaign, which has been one of the biggest talking points.
Studies suggest his arrest boosted his popularity.
A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.
On Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian mogul released from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said, two days after he began what his defense team said was a hunger strike.
The polarization between the different camps risks a derailment of the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate,” such as Karoui.
Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living of close to a third since 2016.
Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), although overseas voting stations for Tunisia’s sizeable expatriate population have been open since Friday.
Some stations will remain open until 6:00 pm, while others will close two hours earlier, for security reasons.
Some 70,000 security agents will be deployed on Sunday, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Exit polls are expected overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results are not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.
The date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls — October 6.
Those polls are supposed to be more significant, as Tunisia is an emerging parliamentary democracy.
But several candidates have called for presidential powers to be beefed up, despite years of dictatorship under Ben Ali.