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Rebels have Yemen on the hop
By Nabil Sultan

SANA'A - More than 200 people have been killed in clashes between Islamic rebels and government forces using warplanes and tanks; this is not Iraq, but the picture of developments in Yemen.

Thousands of families are at risk as the clashes continue in the Marran mountains of the Saddah area, about 150 kilometers north of the capital Sana'a, and close to the border with Saudi Arabia. It is the main center of the Zaidi Shi'ite sect founded about 1,000 years ago.

The rebels have been chanting slogans against the United States and Israel, according to local reports. Air attacks and tank assaults have not been successful so far in capturing rebel leader Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Hothy. Al-Hothy, a former member of parliament for the al-Haq (Truth) party, leads an organization called Believing Youth.

The government accuses al-Hothy of setting up a group modeled on the Lebanese Hezbollah to destabilize the government, and of being involved in attacks on government officials and institutions, and in stirring anti-American sentiment at mosques. He is also accused of preventing people from paying the Islamic tax zakat to the government and of trying to set himself up as an imam. Yemen has not had an imam since Zaidi Imam Hamid al-Din was overthrown as ruler in 1962.

Al-Hothy has denied the accusations. He says Believing Youth is being targeted because of its faith in Islam and its opposition to the United States and Israel.

Yemeni officials say they have been keeping an eye on Believing Youth for some time, but had not believed the movement would become so significant.

Yemen has been trying to shed its image as a safe haven for terrorists ever since it joined the United States in its "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. It has rounded up hundreds of suspected militants and captured alleged key members of al-Qaeda, and it has received military aid from Washington.

"During the US war on Iraq, al-Hothy's followers were in the front lines of demonstrations," President Ali Abdallah Saleh said at a meeting with Islamic scholars last weekend. "We did not consider that a problem, we said they are only a few impetuous youths. But regrettably I have learned that al-Hothy has formed the Believing Youth organization." Saleh said al-Hothy has raised the Hezbollah flag instead of the national flag. "This is against unity."

The leader of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, has denied any links with the rebels in Saddah. "The Hezbollah policy is not to intervene in other countries' affairs," he said in a statement.

The clashes in Saddah have set off political clashes between the government and the opposition Islamic parties. The opposition has called on the government to stop indiscriminate use of weapons and to open peaceful talks with the rebels.

The opposition has asked the president to lift the siege of several civilian areas in Saddah. "This bloodshed, destruction of homes and assaults on people are truly regrettable and a cause for sorrow," they said in a statement.

The ruling General People's Congress has threatened to take the opposition to court over its stand.

The rebellion has also created divisions among Zaidi scholars. Some Zaidi Shi'ite clerics have dismissed the rebellion as only a fitnah (disturbance) among Yemeni Muslims. Zaidi judge Ahmed al-Shami says the military action is only following a fatwa issued by the chairman of the Public Fatwa Authority, Hamoud bin Abbas al-Moayyad.

These clerics say that al-Hothy does not represent the views of the Zaidis, and that they should reject his leadership. Others are supportive of al-Hothy.

This week the Yemeni government ordered closure of all unlicensed religious schools. "Due to the connection between extremism, militancy and certain curricula that promote deviant and alien ideologies, the cabinet has issued orders for the immediate closure of all schools and centers violating the education law," the cabinet said in a statement.

The government integrated 140 religious schools run by Shi'ites, Sunnis and Sufis with government schools in 1999. But many have continued to work independently.

The order to close the schools reflects "strong foreign pressure on the government", political analyst Mohammed al-Sabri told Inter Press Service.

In early 2002, the Yemeni government expelled more than 100 foreign Islamic scholars, including some from the United Kingdom and France. The last major terrorist attack in Yemen was the bombing of the French tanker Limburg in 2002 near one of the country's ports. Fifteen people are on trial charged with involvement in this attack, plotting to assassinate US ambassador Edmund Hall in Sana'a, and involvement in attacks on Yemeni intelligence offices.

(Inter Press Service)

Jul 10, 2004


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