(Sanaa) – The Houthi armed group and the Yemeni armed forces’ Sixth Regional Command appear to have committed violations of the laws of war during fighting in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, from September 17-21, 2014. The government should investigate alleged violations by both sides and appropriately punish those responsible.
Human Rights Watch documented six incidents that resulted in the death of one civilian and injuries to 15 others. In two of the incidents, fighters appeared to have unlawfully targeted civilians. In other incidents, two hospitals came under attack.
“Civilians and hospitals were attacked during the fighting in Sanaa in September,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The belligerent forces also failed to take adequate steps to protect civilians from the fighting.”
In August, unarmed Houthis from northern Yemen and allied tribal groups set up camps in central Sanaa. The Houthis also deployed some armed fighters at strategic points on the outskirts of the capital. They held demonstrations in Sanaa protesting a government decision to end fuel subsidies and to demand that the transitional government, in charge since November 2011, be replaced. On September 7 and 9, 2014, security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing eight demonstrators and an ambulance driver.
On September 17, fighting broke out between the armed Houthi group and the Yemeni military’s Sixth Regional Command, which was possibly supported by militias linked to the Islamist Islah party. A peace agreement signed on September 21 ended the hostilities.
The Health Ministry reported that the four days of fighting left 274 people dead and 470 injured, but did not distinguish between civilian and combatant casualties. The United Nations and local activists told Human Rights Watch that some people may have buried their relatives’ bodies without reporting the deaths to the authorities, so the actual toll could be higher.
The fighting included two attacks on a hospital near the Sixth Regional Command headquarters and an attack by an unidentified force on another hospital. Hospitals are specially protected from attack under the laws of war and forces should avoid deploying near them. Houthi forces shelled the national TV broadcasting building, which would be an unlawful attack unless the station were being used to relay military communications or for other military purposes.
The Sixth Regional Command also placed civilians at unnecessary risk by basing its headquarters and deploying its forces in densely populated areas, including the neighborhoods of al-Jiraf and Shamlan. The fighting left many residents trapped in their homes and neither side appeared willing to assist civilians evacuate to safety.
Armed Houthi forces occupied several schools during the fighting, and used them for military purposes, which made the schools valid targets of attack. While the military occupation of schools without putting students and teachers in harm’s way does not violate the laws of war, an extended occupation deprives children of their right to education under international human rights law. Human Rights Watch has called for all national armed forces and armed groups to reject using schools for military purposes, including as barracks.
“The Yemeni government needs to investigate attacks on civilians and hospitals and make sure that laws-of-war violations do not go unpunished or uncompensated,” Stork said.
Houthi Takeover of Sanaa
During the fighting in Sanaa from September 17 through 21, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi never officially called on the Yemeni military to resist the Houthi forces. The Houthis focused their attacks primarily on military and other installations linked to the Sixth Regional Command, commanded by Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, which had been formed out of the disbanded First Armored Division from the previous government.
General al-Ahmar, as commander of the First Armored Division, had from 2004 to 2010 led many of the major Yemeni military offensives in six conflicts with the Houthis in northern Yemen. He defected to the opposition in March 2011, helping to lead the anti-government protesters in the removal of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh during the 2011 uprising. Al-Ahmar became a military adviser to President Hadi, but a week before the September 2014 fighting began, he was reinstated to a military position.
After four days of bombardment by Houthi artillery, the Sixth Regional Command headquarters fell to the Houthi fighters. On September 21, Hadi and other representatives of the country’s political establishment signed a peace agreement with the Houthis that ended the fighting.
The September 21 peace agreement called for the prime minister’s resignation and the formation of a new government. Two months later, the new prime minister appointed by Hadi has yet to form a government.
Houthi supporters currently man checkpoints on streets throughout Sanaa, ministry buildings, and the international airport. Ali al-Emad, a Houthi spokesman, said that Houthis were guarding government ministries for protection and to ensure that no official business was conducted until a new government took office. “We are not even allowing anyone to bring in or take out flash drives,” he told Human Rights Watch.
Another Houthi spokesman, Ali al-Bokhaiti, said Houthi fighters would continue to run checkpoints and government buildings until they felt that the government was capable of maintaining local security.
The Houthis have since begun military operations to take control of the cities of Hodaida and Taizz, and carried out operations in areas in southern Yemen controlled by the anti-government Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On October 9, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a central square in Sanaa, killing dozens of people among a group of Houthi protesters. AQAP subsequently said it had carried out the attack. Deliberate attacks on civilians are laws-of-war violations that amount to war crimes.
Attacks on Hospitals
During the September fighting, unidentified fighters twice attacked the Azal Hospital, which is across a highway from the Sixth Regional Command headquarters. On September 18, a rocket hit the hospital’s sixth floor but caused no casualties. Two days later, while four staff members were examining the damage, another rocket struck, inflicting shrapnel wounds on all four and breaking one man’s arm and shoulder. The fighters that launched the rockets did not appear to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and may have unlawfully targeted the hospital, Human Rights Watch said.
A nearby hospital, the Science and Technology Hospital, evacuated patients on September 18 after projectiles struck a diesel tank and generator on its roof. It is not clear who attacked the hospital. Later that afternoon, armed Houthi fighters forced their way into the hospital, saying they were searching for weapons. They left after completing their search, without finding any.
Attacks on Civilians
On September 18 at about 7 p.m., fighters fired on a minivan, killing one civilian and wounding seven others. Zubida Abdu Saleh Donbiq, 35, told Human Rights Watch that clashes broke out without warning in Shamlan, where she lived with her husband, Abdullah Abas Hamzah al-Zubaibi, 37, and their seven children. The family packed some belongings into a taxi minivan and drove toward Mathbah, where there had not yet been fighting.
The driver, Nashwan Ali Yousif, 28, and Donbiq’s son Muhammad, 11, said that they passed a checkpoint run by a man in traditional attire commonly worn by Houthis, and after a few minutes entered an area called Sadiq al-Ahmar Hill. Yousif said he saw several gunmen in civilian clothes fire on the minivan, striking it about 30 times on the left side.
The gunfire struck al-Zubaibi, Donbiq, three of their children, and Yousif. Yousif kept driving toward a military checkpoint. When the minivan began to swerve as he was losing consciousness, soldiers at the checkpoint shot out the vehicle’s tires to halt it. The soldiers put the family into an armored vehicle and drove them to the nearby Science and Technology Hospital. Al-Zubaibi was pronounced dead upon arrival. Yousif was hit in his arms and neck, but survived.
Donbiq was struck by at least seven bullets, one of which paralyzed the lower half of her body. “I cannot feel my legs since that night,” she told Human Rights Watch. Her son Muhammad suffered internal bleeding from bullet wounds to his back and right shoulder and arm. Sumaia, 8, was severely wounded in her stomach, leaving her unable to eat for several weeks. Abd al-Majid, 5, was shot in the stomach and also injured by shards of glass in his left arm. Two other children, Mariam, 7, and Shifa’, 12, were cut by glass from the minivan’s windows.
Donbiq said that nearby residents told her that at the time of the attack, Houthi forces were occupying Sadiq al-Ahmar Hill, named after an Islah party leader whose home is there, and who was a target of the Houthi offensive. However, a journalist who was reporting on fighting in the vicinity said that other militias were in the area at that time. Whoever fired on the minivan failed to take all feasible precautions to ensure the target was military, and committed an unlawful attack on civilians.
On September 21, armed men, most probably Houthi fighters, unlawfully shot and wounded a civilian in the Mathbah neighborhood. Muhammad Saleh al-Jadi, 33, told Human Rights Watch that Houthi fighters had taken up positions atop a hill behind his house the night before. Sixth Regional Command soldiers were deployed near his house. He had sent his family to a safe area, but returned home the night before to pick up some belongings. Because of heavy fighting he spent the night there. The fighting destroyed the water tank on his roof and left the wall of his house facing the soldiers covered with bullet holes. The next morning, he said, he left his house at 6:45 a.m. and walked near Mathbah Bridge:
I think because I have a beard, the Houthi fighters – who by this point controlled the Mathbah Bridge – assumed I was from the Islah party. I was not in any kind of uniform or carrying any weapons. Some men started shooting at me from behind as I was walking. I am not sure how many there were, but I saw around five bullets strike near me. One bullet hit my back and exited next to my testicle. I sought safety at the door of a shop right next to me, a man in a truck saw me lying there bleeding, stopped, and picked me up and took me to the Republican Hospital.
The shooting of al-Jadi appears to be an unlawful attack on a civilian in violation of the laws of war.
Occupation of Schools
Houthi forces occupied several Sanaa schools and used them as barracks, both during the fighting and after the peace agreement was signed. Houthi fighters remained in five schools as of September 30, according to the UN. As of October 27, Houthi fighters continued to occupy one school in Sanaa and one in Amran, north of the capital.
Ali al-Bokhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Human Rights Watch that when their forces took control of Sanaa, the Houthis saw an urgent need to fill the power vacuum and asked allied tribal and other groups to bring in more fighters. “There were suddenly thousands of men whom we needed to give a place to sleep,” he said. “We rented some event halls and hotels, but still needed space, which is why some of them took over schools.”
The head of a private school in al-Jiraf, Sanaa, told Human Rights Watch that the nearby fighting and subsequent occupation of the school caused 3,800 students to miss classes for nine days.
Accounts of Civilians Harmed in the Fighting
On September 19 at 6:30 a.m., Muhammad Ali Sahlool, 28, was shopping at the Thahban market (also known as the Ali Mohsen market) for fruit to resell. The market is about 500 meters from Iman University, a key target for the Houthis during the fighting because military forces were based in the area. The market was open for business when shooting started suddenly.
“I don’t know where the bullets were coming from but one hit me in the back and is stuck in my right side,” Sahlool told Human Rights Watch. “The doctors say that it will take two months before my medical condition is stable enough to do the operation to remove it. Now I just have a tube coming out of my chest to stem the internal bleeding.”
In another incident on September 19, a rocket launched from the direction of al-Salam neighborhood, directly under the Sadiq al-Ahmar Hill, landed in the yard of a family in the Hussein Mahdali neighborhood at 8 a.m. Mustafa Ali al-Ahdal, 6, who lived with his family next door, was playing outside and was struck with shrapnel in his stomach, head, and left leg. His father told Human Rights Watch that the family could not flee the night before, when fighting broke out nearby, because they had nowhere to stay and no money for a hotel.
Nasir Muhammad Ali, 37, told Human Rights Watch that on September 21 he went onto the roof of his apartment building on Hail Street at about 2:45 p.m. to fix the family’s satellite dish so they could learn more about the developing security situation. The building was about 800 meters from the Aviation and Defense Forces headquarters. He said that his wife, Rida Nu’man Ali Saleh, 35, who was watching from the garden, suddenly screamed and fell to the ground. “We took her to two hospitals that could not treat her,” Ali said. “Finally we got to the Yemen Jordanian Hospital where she went into surgery for three hours.” He said the doctors told him that a bullet entered the left side of her head and exited from the right side, fracturing her skull. She underwent a bone graft and plastic surgery.