(Aden) - Yemeni forces may have killed dozens of civilians in unlawful attacks while fighting an Islamist armed group in southern Abyan province since May 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The militants in Abyan, called Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), may have unlawfully placed civilians at risk by deploying in densely populated areas and engaged in looting and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
"As Yemeni government forces battle armed militants in Abyan, civilians are paying the price," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Both sides need to be doing much more to protect civilians from harm, and the government should be investigating possible laws-of-war violations by its forces in Abyan."
The Yemeni government should promptly conduct impartial investigations into credible allegations of unlawful attacks by its forces in Abyan, Human Rights Watch said. Those found responsible for violations of the laws of war that amount to war crimes should be prosecuted and the victims compensated.
The Yemeni army and other state security forces have clashed with the Ansar al-Sharia forces for more than three months in Abyan. The militants, who authorities claim are linked to al-Qaeda, overran the town of Jaar on March 27 and seized Abyan's nearby provincial capital city, Zinjibar, on May 29.
Human Rights Watch obtained accounts of the attacks in Abyan from 30 civilians who witnessed and fled the fighting, including several people who were wounded in attacks. The interviews took place during the last week of June in the southern city of Aden; security concerns prevented Human Rights Watch from visiting Abyan province. The witnesses, whose names Human Rights Watch is withholding for security reasons, all believed that both sides had placed civilians at risk.
Seven witnesses from Zinjibar described a midday incident on May 4 in which about 20 members of Yemen's Central Security paramilitary forces opened fire with assault rifles in the city's crowded central market, killing six merchants and shoppers and wounding about 35 other civilians. An explosion ripped apart a Central Security vehicle stationed at its usual spot near the market entrance, killing four members of the force. Soon thereafter, Central Security forces pulled up in two four-wheel-drive vehicles and began firing at people in the market.
"They were shooting at people right in front of them as if they were chickens," said a government worker in his 30s. "I saw them chasing people, continuing to shoot them as they tried to escape."
Ansar al-Sharia fighters fired weapons including rocket-propelled grenades from locations beside populated homes in Jaar and Zinjibar and nearby villages, several witnesses told Human Rights Watch. By deploying in densely populated areas, the militants may have placed civilians at unnecessary risk, in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. When the soldiers counter-attacked by shelling or bombing the residential areas, the militants had fled, the witnesses said.
Government forces at a minimum failed to take all feasible precautions to ensure there was a military target in an aerial attack on a civilian bus on June 29 that killed six people and wounded about a dozen others, which an anonymous Yemeni official described to the media as an accident. A government warplane fired at least two missiles at a crowded passenger bus on a highway about seven kilometers outside of Zinjibar, two of those injured told Human Rights Watch. The bus was part of a convoy of 20 vehicles transporting passengers east from Aden to Shabwa province. Midway between Aden and the site of the attack, security officers had stopped the convoy and searched the passengers and vehicles, but found no sign of militants, and there was no fighting on the road.
"Why did the government attack a crowded highway?" said a young man who lost his right hand in the strike. "Three of my friends were killed and one of them, we could not find all his body parts."
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that humanitarian assistance is not reaching civilians who need aid and are in conflict areas or who have fled. Displaced people who fled militant-held Zinjibar described it as a wasteland of destroyed homes and shuttered shops, with dogs eating corpses on the streets. It is without water, power, and telecommunications. Looting - some by militants - is widespread, the witnesses said. Most of the 70,000 residents have fled, they said, and many are camped under trees in rural areas outside the city.
Tens of thousands of others are in Aden, crammed into schools and abandoned homes. In eight shelters that Human Rights Watch visited, the displaced people said they had received almost no food or other humanitarian assistance from the government.
Witnesses provided Human Rights Watch with the names and other details about two dozen civilians who have been killed in the past two months in attacks on Abyan, but said they believed the total numbers were far higher. In interviews with international media, Yemeni government officials have said the fighting has killed more than 130 soldiers and dozens of armed militants as well as some civilians.
The fighting between Yemeni security forces and Ansar al-Sharia, which occupies significant territory inside Abyan, appears to have risen to the level of an armed conflict under the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. Attacks violate the laws of war when they deliberately target civilians, do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, or when they cause disproportionate loss of civilian life and property compared with the expected military gain of the attack. Parties to a conflict also violate the laws of war by failing to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians or by deploying forces within densely populated areas.
"Both sides should be ensuring that aid gets to all those at grave risk," Stork said.
The Abyan Province Combatants
Yemeni government officials say that the armed militants of Ansar al-Sharia in Abyan are backed by Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP as recently as April identified Ansar al-Sharia as an alternate name for its organization. In public statements and pamphlets, Ansar al-Sharia members say their aim is to establish Islamic rule.
Ansar al-Sharia fighters are recognized by their long hair and beards, and they often carry flags and banners that read Ansar al-Sharia, several witnesses who fled Abyan said. They said many fighters have come there from other areas of Yemen, and the group may also include small numbers of Iraqis, Moroccans, Somalis, and Saudis.
Police, Central Security forces, and army troops retreated from Jaar and Zinjibar as the armed militants advanced, several witnesses told Human Rights Watch, and Yemeni and international media reports said.
Since February, pro-democracy protesters have frequently protested across the country, calling to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule. Saleh is recovering in a hospital in Saudi Arabia hospital from injuries he sustained during an attack on the presidential palace in the capital, Sanaa, on June 3.
Yemen's political opposition has accused the government of allowing Ansar al-Sharia to take over portions of Abyan to heighten fears of an Islamist takeover if Saleh were forced to resign.
Human Rights Watch has documented repeated human rights violations by state security forces in Yemen. Central Security, commanded by Saleh's nephew Yahya Muhammed Saleh, was implicated in the attack on civilians in Zinjibar market on May 4.
Since security forces departed from the towns, the army's 25th Mechanized Brigade has been launching artillery and other strikes on Zinjibar and surrounding areas from its base on the outskirts of Zinjibar, assisted by the air force and navy, state-run media and witnesses have reported.
Shelling of Homes, Mosque
Some of the heaviest fighting in Zinjibar occurred in the days immediately after Ansar al-Sharia forces took over, witnesses said. "The city was burning down in front of our eyes," an architect from the city told Human Rights Watch, describing events on May 31:
I saw charred bodies on the streets. The state security forces withdrew from Zinjibar, allowed the militants to take over, and then began to strike the people who live in Zinjibar. They said they would drive the militants out, but instead they are destroying our homes.
The architect fled with his family that day, after air strikes killed two of his neighbors and destroyed several nearby homes. He said he sold his car to rent an apartment in Aden.
Other residents sought shelter in civilian buildings in Zinjibar, but were not spared attack. On the night of May 30, for example, about two dozen residents huddled in al-Shiuba mosque. At about 10 a.m. on May 31, the mosque was struck at least three times by what several people inside told Human Rights Watch they thought were missiles, killing six people, including the mosque's caretaker. They said no Ansar al-Sharia militants or people with weapons were inside. One witness said that at the time of the attack, militants were occupying the Zinjibar courthouse, about 500 meters from the mosque.
Possible Indiscriminate Attacks
Human Rights Watch said there was a need for investigations into possible indiscriminate attacks by the Yemeni armed forces in Jaar and Zibjibar. Several people who fled the fighting in and around the two towns described seeing civilians killed or wounded by artillery shrapnel or small arms fire with no visible fighting or military targets nearby. One young man said he saw a man drop dead while sitting outside his home after what he thought was a missile strike the al-Tumaisi neighborhood of Zinjibar on May 30. Another man described a similar attack that killed a 7-year-old girl and three women inside a house in Jaar on June 2. He was riding in a bus that was struck during the same attack and needed treatment in Aden for a leg injury.
The Yemeni army has not warned residents of attacks in Abyan, several witnesses who were in neighborhoods that were struck in and around Jaar and Zibjibar told Human Rights Watch. Parties to an armed conflict are obligated under the laws of war to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, including giving effective advance warning of attacks unless circumstances do not permit. A Zinjibar resident who had served on a local government advisory council told Human Rights Watch that soon after Ansar al-Sharia militants took over the city, he called Gen. Muhammad al-Somali, commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade, to tell him that the military's missiles and artillery were killing civilians and damaging homes:
I told him that he must be careful to not harm civilians and asked him to stop the attacks for five hours, just to let the civilians escape the city. The commander of the brigade ended the call and did not respond to my calls after that.
Abuses Under Ansar al-Sharia
The Ansar al-Sharia militants have tried to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, on residents, several displaced persons said. In Jaar, one man said, the militants forced residents to pray, prevented women from leaving their homes without a male relative, and formed Islamist security committees and courts.
The militants have also been implicated in looting and theft in violation of the laws of war. One Zinjibar resident said the militants justified their thefts by invoking religion: "They would say, ‘This is the land of God and not your land.'" Another said, "They say they want to establish the law of God, but they are liars because they are also robbing banks. They say they will kill anyone who supports President Saleh."
Criminals joined the militants and home robberies became widespread, residents who fled said.
Under the laws of war, armed groups must respect civilian life and property. An armed group that effectively controls and acts as a governing body over territory is responsible for respecting fundamental human rights and holding those who abuse them to account. These rights - set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a host of international human rights treaties - include the rights to freedom of expression, religion, association, and peaceful assembly, and equal treatment before the law.
Yemeni authorities should take all necessary steps to ensure that their forces do not commit indiscriminate attacks or other serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. They should conduct prompt and impartial investigations into attacks in which there are credible allegations of laws-of-war violations, and prosecute those responsible for violations that amount to war crimes, and compensate victims.
Armed militant groups should take all feasible measures to minimize civilian casualties, including not deploying in densely populated areas. Militant forces should protect civilian life and property and respect basic human rights in areas that they control, including freedom of religion, speech, and association.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should convene a special session on Yemen and establish a human rights monitoring and reporting mission in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented credible allegations of Yemeni military forces conducting indiscriminate attacks in past armed conflicts in the country's north. It also has documented the security forces' repeated use of unlawful lethal force against largely peaceful demonstrators, most recently against protesters calling for Saleh's resignation.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed the deaths of 174 people in attacks by security forces and pro-government assailants on the anti-Saleh protesters since February.