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Yemen rebels offer truce to Saudi Arabia

Houti Shi’ite rebels in Yemen want ceasefire with Saudi Arabia. Student killed in riots over Venezuelan media. ‘Chemical Ali’ hanged in Iraq. Hundreds arrested after violence in Nigeria. All this and much more, in today’s briefing.
Dries Belet
26 January 2010

On Monday, the leader of Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, proposed a truce with Saudi Arabia in an audio tape. He said his fighters would withdraw from Saudi Arabia’s territory near the border with Yemen to avoid further civilian casualties, after three months of skirmishes and Saudi air strikes.

Al-Houthi stated that “to avoid more bloodshed and to stop aggression on civilians ... we offer this initiative”, before warning that if Saudi Arabia did not agree to an end of the hostilities, the rebels would wage an “open war” on the world’s top oil exporter.

Yemen’s government has been in conflict with the rebels since 2004, but fighting escalated last August when government forces launched ‘operation scorched earth’ against the Houthis.  In November, the rebels seized Saudi territory bordering Yemen, prompting a strong Saudi military response.

The openSecurity verdict:  In addition to the Houthi uprising in the north of the country, Yemen also faces separatist pressures in its southern regions. Such unrest has increasingly alarmed both the United States and Saudi Arabia, who fear that Yemen will become the next ‘failed state’, allowing al-Qaeda to exploit the chaos and step up its presence in the country. An expanding foothold in Yemen could threaten the Gulf of Aden, already plagued by piracy, and potentially reinforce armed Islamists in Somalia.

The fact that the Houthis are offering a ceasefire indicates the extent of pressure from Saudi forces. According to analysts in Yemen, the rebels could not continue an open war against the Saudis, having suffered major air and artillery strikes. However, the proposed truce could equally be a means of concentrating their efforsts on the Yemeni side of the border, and there is no guarantee that the rebels will not return to Saudi territory later.

Hence Riyadh faces a dilemma in deciding whether to end the hostilities. A ceasefire would be a welcome respite for the Saudi army, which has already lost 113 soldiers in the fighting, according to General Ali Zaid al-Khawaji, the Saudi commander in the region. It would also help to improve humanitarian conditions in northern Yemen, where the Red Cross says that the fate of civilians has “drastically worsened” since fighting expanded. According to the United Nations, the conflict has displaced about 200,000 people.

Conversely, Riyadh may not want to leave the rebels to regroup and build their positions in the north of Yemen. The Sunni governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia suspect the Shi’ite rebels are supported by co-religionists in Iran, Riyadh's long running rival. Iran has denied encouraging the rebels, but it is clear that the two will not be divorced in Saudi Arabia’s strategic calculations.

Still, should Saudi Arabia stop their attacks for now, and accept the truce, they could no doubt benefit. They could shift their focus to indirectly supporting the government in Sana’a, providing more financial resources and training for its security forces, while closely monitoring the insurgents. Riyadh should also attempt to prod the Yemeni government towards negotiation with the rebels, since the enduring conflict, stemming as it does from the marginalisation of a legitimate minority, will not be solved by brute force. A better strategy would be to talk to the rebels and address their grievances, such as their accusations of social, economic, and religious exclusion by the government.

Student killed in riots over Venezuelan media

On Monday, one youth was killed and sixteen people injured when student protesters clashed with supporters of president Chavez and the police. Students across the country came out in protest after the government suspended a popular television channel generally critical of Chavez and the Venezuelan government. The student was killed in a demonstration in the western city of Merida, while the biggest protests took place in the capital of Caracas.

Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) was taken off the air after it refused to broadcast a speech by Chavez. The Venezuelan state-run telecommunications agency cited breached regulations for shutting down RCTV along with five other networks. Journalists and media freedom groups were outraged by the events, accusing Chavez of silencing political opposition ahead of elections in September.

‘Chemical Ali’ hanged in Iraq

Ali Hassan al-Majid, who became known as ‘Chemical Ali’ for his role in gassing thousands of Kurds, was executed on Monday in Baghdad. Last week, a special tribunal in Baghdad gave him his fourth death sentence for his most notorious crime: a poisoned gas attack on Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabja. The attack, which was carried out by Iraqi aircraft in March 1988, killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds.

Al-Majid received his first death sentence in 2007, but due to legal procedures his execution had to wait until now. Fouad Masoum, a leading Kurdish politician, proclaimed that “justice had been done”, saying Majid got what he deserved for the atrocities and adding that he hoped “he will be a lesson for others”.

Hundreds arrested after violence in Nigeria

More than 300 people have been held on accusations of involvement in last week’s deadly religious clashes in the Nigerian city of Jos. According to the police, at least 326 people were killed during fighting between Christian and Muslim gangs. Hundreds of police officers have been deployed to Jos, and a curfew has been imposed to restore order.

Police sources say that some of the suspects have been moved to the capital of Abuja for questioning. Certain government officials suspect that many of those arrested were also responsible for similar religious attacks in 2008 but had escaped trial at the time. Criminals in Nigeria often escaped justice in the past due to the country’s weak legal system, overburdened judiciary, and overflowing prisons.

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