SANAA, (Reuters) – The international aid group Oxfam warned on Tuesday that Yemen could soon face a humanitarian crisis as a result of the escalation of fighting in August between government forces and northern rebels seeking autonomy.
United Nations groups say around 150,000 people have been made refugees since the fighting began in 2004 and thousands are living in official and makeshift camps.
The situation has worsened since Sanaa launched Operation Scorched Earth last month in an attempt to crush rebels of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect in Saada and Amran provinces.
“The conflict-driven emergency in Yemen could soon ignite into a full-blown humanitarian crisis unless immediate action is taken to stop the fighting,” Oxfam said in a statement, asking for safe passage for refugees in the mountainous region. “The agency calls on all parties to the conflict to implement an immediate and lasting ceasefire to the fighting that started on 11 August, and for the international community to intervene diplomatically to that end,” the statement said.
A report earlier this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that a combination of events could weaken government authority and destabilise the whole region. “Any single event — or more likely a confluence of worst-case events beyond the ability of the Yemeni government to control — could lead to a further erosion of central government authority in Yemen and destabilisation of the region,” it said. “A major humanitarian crisis, triggered perhaps by severe famine or crop failure, could, for instance, result in a large refugee emergency in which the government would be unable to provide even rudimentary relief services,” the report said.
Last week two army air raids were reported to have killed dozens of civilians, and were condemned by aid organisations and Yemeni rights groups.
Media have had difficulty reaching the conflict zone and ceasefire offers by each side have come to nothing.
Yemeni state media reported dozens of deaths on the rebel side over the three-day Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday this week, despite the announcement of a two-week suspension of military operations for the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The situation in Saada province remains volatile after weekend clashes, the U.N. refugee agency said.
“This is the second failed ceasefire in less than a month,” UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing in Geneva, adding that 1,600 people were received in Saada after a recent lull in the fighting.
Families are still arriving at the Al Mazraq camp in Hajjah province, which now holds some 5,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), Mahecic said. “Some walk for days through the desert before reaching the site. People in the camp are struggling to survive daily hardships as well as brutal weather,” he said.
The government says the rebels, known as Houthis after their clan leaders, want to restore a Shi’ite state that fell in the 1960s and accuse Shi’ite power Iran of having contact with them.
The rebels say they want autonomy and accuse President Ali Abdullah Saleh of despotism and corruption in a drive to stay in power, and of introducing Sunni fundamentalism via his alliance with Riyadh.
Instability in Yemen, including renewed attacks on foreign and government targets by al Qaeda over the past two years, has alarmed Western powers and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest oil producers.