Arab governments and Iran trade accusations after Houthi crackdown in Yemen

Saudi offensive against Houthis provokes Arab-Iranian diplomatic row. Cambodian refusal to extradite Thai ex-PM freys neighbourly relations. Taliban footage shows dominance in Nuristan. Somali pirates strike again. Security firm Blackwater in bribery scandal. FARC rebels kill nine Colombian soldiers. All this and more in today's briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
11 November 2009

Abdul Malik al-Houthi, a commander of the Shia rebels fighting the government in Yemen, has called on Saudi Arabia to end attacks against his group, rejecting accusations of Iranian help and links to a foreign political agenda. This week, Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbour, launched an offensive against the rebels after they staged a cross-border raid. Riyadh has said it will continue to target the Houthis until they retreat from its border. On Wednesday, Saudi officials said they had imposed a naval blockade on northern Yemen's Red Sea coast to stop weapons from reaching the insurgents.

Yemen, which is majority Sunni, has accused the Shia regime in Iran of arming the rebels, something both Iran and the Houthis deny. In the past few weeks, Houthi rebels have accused Saudi Arabia of allowing Yemeni forces use of Saudi territory to launch attacks against them, a charge both Yemen and Saudi deny.

On Wednesday, Iran said it was ready to help restore security in Yemen. Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, made the offer a day after Iran warned Arab countries against interfering in its affairs and deepening sectarian rifts between Sunnis and Shias in the region. In a news conference, Mottaki warned that ‘those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows.’ Iran was recently subject to an attack by members of the Baloch Sunni insurgency which killed senior figures in the Revolutionary Guards.

Fighting between Yemeni authorities and the Houthi rebels has intensified after the government launched a fresh offensive in August 2009. The rebels first took up arms in 2004 demanding autonomous rule, citing political, economic and religious marginalization of the Zaidi Shia community. Aid groups estimate that up to 150,000 people have fled their homes since the onset of the conflict in 2004. The UN has called for secure routes to deliver aid, warning there may be widespread suffering if it is not able to do so.

The openSecurity verdict: Fears of a proxy war between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen have raised grave security concerns, especially as the country is already embroiled in conflict with secessionists in the south and al-Qaeda remnants. The latter have strong roots in the country, and it is the ancestral home of the Bin Laden family. The turmoil in Yemen has sparked fears that Yemen could become the most dangerous new front in the War on Terror. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict could well be a reflection of Saudi anxiety, shared by other Arab states, about Yemen's role as a springboard for attacks across the region.

Regional tensions too have deepened as a result of the conflict in Yemen. Bahrain and Kuwait, both concerned about Shia influence in the region, together with Morocco have expressed their support for Saudi Arabia in attacking Houthi fighters. The show of solidarity between Arab states joins accusations leveled against religious schools affiliated to Shia beliefs and Iran for their support of the Houthis.

For their part, the Houthis have accused Saudi Arabia of using phosphorous bombs in the offensive. The use of white phosphorous in civilian areas is banned under international law. They have further described Saudi bombardment as 'random', hitting residential areas and consequently killing civilians.

Both the Houthis and Saudis claim to have captured prisoners. Saudi security sources say scores of Houthi rebels have been arrested in the ongoing operation across the border. Saudi television has reportedly shown pictures of some of these alleged prisoners, who are expected to make televised confessions within the coming few days. Houthi rebels meanwhile have released footage of a man they identified as one of several Saudi soldiers in their custody.

Aside from the security repercussions of the conflict, there are very real economic fears too. Natural gas export by Total, the French energy giant, has been plagued by safety concerns. Mounting hostility towards Westerners meant the company had to hire Yemeni locals when constructing its natural gas-facility and liaise with tribes whose land the pipeline travels through. At full capacity, Total's investment in Yemen is expected to earn billions of dollars for Yemen's government. Security concerns however are likely to colour any investments made in the impoverished country.

Cambodia rejects Thaksin extradition demand

Cambodia has rejected an extradition request from Thailand for former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, further escalating diplomatic tensions between the two south-east Asian neighbours. Thaksin is in Phnom Penh advising Cambodia's government on economic matters, a move that is likely to stoke tensions with Thailand. Thai embassy officials had formally presented a request to extradite Thaksin on corruption charges. The former businessman-turned-politician was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison, though he has since been living in self-imposed exile. Despite being ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, Thaksin remains at the centre of a bitter political division between his supporters and those of the current government.

Cambodia has rejected Thailand’s extradition request describing the charges against Thaksin as politically motivated. The two countries share an extradition treaty, though a get out clause allows either country to turn down a request should they feel it is politically motivated. Relations between the two neighbours are already strained, with both countries recalling their ambassadors to one another and the Thai cabinet scrapping joint plans for trade and oil exploration on Tuesday.

TV footage shows Taliban's expanded control of Nuristan

Television footage broadcast by Al-Jazeera on Tuesday showed insurgents handling U.S. ammunition in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan where eight American forces died in a firefight last month. The Taliban claims to have appointed local officials and reopened schools in Nuristan, a province now believed to be under their control. The ammunition is said to have been seized from two military outposts abandoned by US forces last month. According to Pentagon officials, the closing of the outpost in Nuristan was part of an initiative by General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to focus on more heavily populated areas.

Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai is expected to reach out to moderate Taliban fighters in his inauguration speech on 19 November. Reintegration of Taliban fighters with little affiliation to the group’s ideology is part of an initiative supported by international forces to quell insurgency.

Elsewhere President Barack Obama is set to discuss US policy in Afghanistan with his national security team on Wednesday as speculation mounts over a decision on troop levels. Obama is poised to confirm a surge of more than 30,000 US combat troops, according to senior military sources.

Somali pirates capture two more ships

Somali pirated hijacked a Yemeni fishing boat and a Greek cargo ship carrying chemicals on Wednesday. The attack is the latest in a growing maritime crime wave gripping the Indian Ocean. Somali pirates are holding at least thirteen vessels and more than 230 crew hostage, including a British couple whose yacht was hijacked off the Seychelles.

On Tuesday, the Seychelles and the European Union signed an agreement authorising EU naval forces to hunt and detain suspected Somali pirated in waters off the Seychelles. The deal is designed to help the small country develop its own anti-piracy capacity. The US military has deployed unmanned drones to scour the Indian Ocean for Somali pirates. Drones are being used to zoom in on suspected pirated from heights of up to 50,000 feet. There are currently no plans to allow unmanned aircraft to carry weaponry.

US Security firm Blackwater in bribery scandal

Top Blackwater executives authorised $1 million in payments to Iraqi officials that were intended to silence criticism and buy their support following a deadly shooting in Baghdad in 2007 that killed seventeen Iraqi civilians. According to former company officials, Gary Jackson, who was then Blackwater's president, had approved of the bribes and the money was sent from Amman, Jordan to a manager in Iraq. The strategy of buying off government officials, which would have been illegal under American law, reportedly created divisions inside the company. Five Blackwater guards involved in the Baghdad shooting are facing charges in the US and their trial is scheduled to begin in February in Washington. The State Department denies knowledge of any wrongdoing on the part of the security firm, which previously won multimillion dollar defense contracts.

FARC attack kills 9 Colombian soldiers

Nine Colombian soldiers have been killed in a clash with fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a southwestern part of the country used as a cocaine smuggling corridor by the rebels. Colombian troops came under mortar attack late on Monday in the town of Corinto, located in the mountainous province of Cauca. President Alvaro Uribe described the deaths as a tragedy.

The ferocity of the attack has shown that Uribe's US-backed military campaign against the left-wing rebels has failed to end the guerillas’ offensive capacity. Whilst violence has significantly decreased in recent years, the rebels retain a firm hold of the countryside and continue to profit from the illegal drugs trade.

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