In Yemen capital, fears over fighting cloud Eid holiday

Yemeni worshippers perform Muslim Eid al-Fitr prayers in the capital Sanaa on June 15, 2018
AFP

Sanaa (AFP) – Residents of Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sanaa on Friday marked another Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday under the shadow of war, scared their city could be next in line for a military showdown.

At the start of the two-day festivities, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the mosques of the capital were packed with the faithful.

But just several hours drive away in the port city of Hodeida — held by the same Iran-backed Huthi rebels who run Sanaa — locals cowered in their homes as clashes raged nearby with Saudi-backed forces.

Pro-government troops on Wednesday launched one of the biggest offensives of a devastating three-year war to capture the Red Sea hub, heightening fears for a country on the edge of famine.

The United Nations has warned the assault on Hodeida, which handles 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, could have catastrophic consequences in a nation already suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  

The spectre of that battle — and anxiety Sanaa could be next in the firing line — loomed large over the Eid holiday in the capital. 

“We’re really worried, with everything that’s happening in Hodeida,” one Sanaa resident, who requested anonymity, told AFP in the city’s streets. 

“We ask God to spare us war. Poverty is enough.” 

– Prayer rugs and kalashnikovs –

The Yemen war, which pits the country’s Iran-backed rebels against a government backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, has claimed some 10,000 lives since the Riyadh-led coalition joined the war in 2015. 

The Huthis swept into Sanaa, Yemen’s once-picturesque capital, in 2014 and the city has been under their unchallenged control since late last year, when they killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, their one-time ally.

On Friday, the streets of the capital were lined with armed rebels as worshippers brought their brightly coloured prayer rugs to mosques for prayers to celebrate Eid. 

On one street, rebel fighters placed their machine guns on their prayer rugs before kneeling to pray. 

Armed rebels also marched a coffin bearing a man’s picture and wrapped in a green flag — the colour of the Huthis — through another Sanaa street. 

The man, the rebels said, had been killed fighting the government.  

In a public display of support for the rebels, a man in a bright blue jacket launched into an impromptu sermon on the importance of resisting the government — echoing a call hours earlier by Yemen’s rebel chief. 

Leader Abdelmalik al-Huthi on Thursday night urged supporters to “confront the forces of tyranny”, warning he would rally his fighters to recapture areas along the western coastline taken by pro-government forces.

– ‘Lost’ holiday joy –

Some 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of Sanaa, troops backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting to close in on Hodeida.

The assault, led on the ground by the United Arab Emirates, has sparked immediate fears for 600,000 people living in and around the city.

Aid agencies warn that if it disrupts the flow of goods — and vital humanitarian aid — then it could also worsen the already dire situation across the rest of the country. 

For many Yemenis, the warning is already a daily reality. 

“I’ve had diabetes for years,” said Waheed Mustafa, who had joined the Friday prayers in Sanaa. 

“I have a lot of trouble getting treatment, and that’s what I’m most concerned about: securing the treatment I need.” 

Yemenis across the country struggle to afford even the most basic of food staples. The UN estimates eight million people stand on the brink of famine. 

Inhabitants of the capital on Friday said they feared the Hodeida battle would drive prices up in Yemen, long the most impoverished country in the Arab world. 

“Many residents were unable to buy new clothes or candies for their children on Eid,” said Sanaa resident Abdul Aziz Ali, adding that many had just stood outside shops looking at the window displays. 

“We have lost any sense of holiday joy,” interrupted Naji Ahmed, another resident. 

“War, and inflation, have cost us the very meaning of life.”

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