(Beirut) – Pro-Houthi forces fatally shot two women and held aid workers hostage in the Yemeni city of Aden. The incidents, possible war crimes, exemplify the grave threats to civilians in the embattled southern seaport, where Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, and their allies are fighting forces of the Popular Resistance Committees for control of the city.
The Houthis and other parties to the conflict should abide by the laws of war, including taking all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. The Houthis should investigate and appropriately punish members of its forces responsible for abuses.
Aden’s population has suffered severe shortages of food, water, fuel, and other necessities as a result of the fighting, a reduction in ships bringing goods, an air and sea blockade by the Saudi-led coalition, and interference with aid deliveries. According to the United Nations, coalition air strikes, some of which appear to have involved violations of international humanitarian law, and fighting on the ground in Yemen has killed at least 646 civilians, including 50 women and 131 children, and wounded more than 1,364.
“Aden’s civilians are already in dire straits, without being attacked, detained, and held hostage,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Leaders of the Houthis and other forces need to protect civilians, not abuse and terrorize them.”
The two women were struck by gunfire in separate incidents on April 17 and 18, 2015, and died before relatives could find a medical facility that could treat them. Pro-Houthi forces also unlawfully detained 10 local aid workers for 6 to 14 days in April, releasing two only after payments were made. Deliberate attacks on civilians and taking hostages are war crimes.
A man in military uniform atop a seven-story building shot Sabreen al-Aboos, 20, a civilian, at 8:50 a.m. on April 17, her uncle Hussain al-Elbi, 50, told Human Rights Watch. Al-Elbi said he and his niece had been hurrying along a street in Mualla, Aden, to evade fighting in the area between pro-Houthi forces and Popular Resistance Committees forces, when he saw the gunman take aim from a nearby building held by pro-Houthi fighters and fire a single shot. His niece was hit in the chest.
He took his niece to four hospitals. Two said they did not have the equipment and personnel to treat her, while staff at the third said they could not treat gunshot wounds above the waist. His niece died later that day at the fourth hospital. This apparent deliberate shooting of a civilian was made more tragic by the lack of medical care available in Aden, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 18 at 4:15 p.m. a bullet struck Neveen al-Taib, 42, in the arm and chest in the bedroom of her apartment in Crater, Aden, her husband, Muhannad Nooman, 47, told Human Rights Watch. The shot was fired through a balcony door apparently from the direction of a nearby hill where Houthi forces were deployed while they engaged forces loyal to the ousted president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Nooman said he drove his wife to the nearest clinic although armed clashes were continuing in the area. After the clinic’s staff said they could not treat her because of personnel and equipment shortages, he tried to take her to a hospital. When a shot fired from the direction of a building held by the pro-Houthi Republican Guard hit their car, breaking the rear window, Noonan drove to the Sulimani mosque hoping to get help at its first aid clinic. The clinic could not treat gunshot wounds, however, and his wife died there, Nooman said.
Pro-Houthi soldiers manning a checkpoint on April 7 stopped and unlawfully detained 10 aid workers in a five-car convoy to deliver medical supplies to a medical compound in Mualla, Aden, one of the men, Talat Muzahim, told Human Rights Watch. The soldiers took them to a villa held by Houthi forces where the aid workers found three other detainees.
Muzahim said that the guards interrogated them daily, accusing them of intending to deliver the aid to the extremist groups Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State, also known as ISIS. On the sixth day, guards released Muzahim and one of his colleagues, leaving them at the side of a road. They released the others over the following 14 days, including two after their families each paid thousands of dollars and provided a car to their captors. Demanding payment for the release of some of the health workers made their detention a hostage-taking, which is a war crime.
In recent weeks there has been intense fighting in and around Aden. Houthi forces and allied armed forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2012, have battled the Popular Resistance Committees, consisting of fighters belonging to al-Hirak, which advocates for the secession of southern Yemen, and a small number of military units loyal to Hadi.
The Houthi and allied forces gained control of central Aden and the presidential place on April 2, 2015. Two days later, local residents told Human Rights Watch, fighting spread to the Mualla neighborhood on Aden’s southern peninsula and then on April 18 to the nearby Crater area after an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition opposed to the Houthis.
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen, civilians and civilian objects may never be deliberate targets of attack. Attacks that fail to discriminate between civilians and combatants or that cause civilian harm disproportionate to the expected military gain of an attack are prohibited. Warring parties must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. They should avoid deploying in densely populated civilian areas or remove civilians from the vicinity of their deployments. Governments are obliged to investigate credible allegations of violations.
“The difficulty of investigating the fighting in Yemen may mean abuses like these in Aden are just the tip of the iceberg,” Stork said. “The onus is on all factions and on the Saudi led coalition to take steps to abide by the laws of war.”
Attacks on Civilians
Al-Aboos, a law student, and al-Elbi, were walking in the Mualla toward Al Aboos’s home on the morning of April 7, Al-Elbi said. Houthi and al-Hirak forces were engaged in heavy exchanges of gunfire in the area: “We were walking fast, against the walls of the buildings, trying to avoid the gunshots and to be sheltered.”
At al-Ghafari Mosque Street, they decided to seek shelter between two nearby buildings close by. When the shooting subsided, they decided to continue on. Al-Elbi, who has a limp from an old military accident, cannot walk quickly.
“Sabreen was holding my hand and walking next to me,” Al-Elbi said. “Just before Mualla Street, she dropped a bag she was carrying and stopped to pick it up.” He said he saw a Houthi gunman in military uniform at the top of a seven-story building about 10 meters from where they were standing take aim and fire. “As she was standing up a bullet hit her left breast and came out through her back. She stood up and walked three steps, gasping, “Uncle, the bullet hit me,” and then she fell down.
They arrived at Basuhaib Military Hospital at 9:20 a.m. After doctors there said they could not treat al-Aboos, he took her to a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) hospital across the bay in Aden, traveling by boat because he was worried that Houthi gunmen were targeting ambulances. When he arrived, an ambulance driver at the hospital told him that the hospital was not admitting people with gunshot wounds above the belly. Al-Elbi next took her to al-Naqeeb Hospital, where doctors also told him they could not treat her because of a lack of personnel and equipment. Finally, she received some treatment at al-Alwali Hospital, but died there at 6:30 p.m.
Al-Taib, a sociology doctoral candidate, lived with her husband and five children in a second floor apartment in the Crater district in Aden. Her sister, Ahlam al-Taib, told Human Rights Watch that she, her mother, and brother were all staying with al-Taib because they had felt unsafe at their homes in Aden.
Nooman said that he and his wife were in their bedroom standing by the door when a bullet smashed through the balcony door and hit her. Her sister, who was in the living room, said: “I saw Neveen enter her bedroom after her husband, then heard the sound of a bullet shattering glass, and then Neveen came out of the room covered in blood.” Their balcony faces a hill known as Mount al-Badri. Houthis were holding positions on the hill at the time.
The bullet went through her arm, into her chest. Nooman drove his wife to the nearest clinic, as fighting continued in the area. The clinic’s staff told him that they did not have the supplies to deal with the case and so he started driving to a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the Sheikh Othman area, about 20 kilometers away. On the way, gunmen at two makeshift checkpoints stopped him and on Queen Arwa Street a bullet came through the rear window of the car, smashing the glass into Neveen al-Taib’s brother in the back seat, who did not get seriously injured.
Nooman said, the bullet came from the direction of a building in which Republican Guard forces, a military unit loyal to former president Saleh that is supporting Houthi fighters, had taken cover. He decided to turn around and drive to the nearby Sulimani mosque, which operates a first aid clinic. However, the clinic was not able to treat gunshot wounds. His wife died at the mosque.
Ahlam al-Taib said there were clashes at the cemetery where they held her sister’s funeral the next day. They were able to bury her but another family attempting to bury a relative had to disperse because of gunfire. Al-Taib said that another bullet entered the bedroom a few days later, damaging the air conditioner, but by that time the opposing military forces had shifted positions and it was not possible to know which side had fired the shot.
Aid Workers Taken Hostage
Muzahim said that the convoy of five vehicles and 10 men was delivering medical supplies to a medical compound in the Mualla district of Aden at 11 a.m. on April 7. The convoy was stopped by about 25 men, some in military uniforms and others in civilian dress, manning a checkpoint backed by a tank, an armored vehicle, and four SUVs.
Several of the men, all armed, asked him and a colleague in their car what they were doing with the medical supplies, and accused them of intending to deliver them to AQAP and ISIS. Muzahim tried to convince them, showing the paperwork, that they were simply trying to deliver the supplies to the hospital, which was trying to cope with a large number of wounded since fighting had begun in Mualla three days earlier. But the men at the checkpoint proceeded to confiscate the cell phones of all 10 men, yelling threats and insults. The armed men ordered the aid workers out of the cars, and detained them at the roadside until 6 p.m., without giving them any reason. Muzahim said:
Three times, it looked like they would release us, but then they received an order from a commander to transfer us to him. They put us in the SUVs and drove us to a villa in Mualla, where a commander came to inspect us, and then ordered them to hold us in another villa nearby. Houthis are currently occupying all the villas in the area. I know it well. In the villa, we met three other prisoners. Two had been detained for the last two days, and one for eight days.
They put us all together in a separate room with no lights, and fed us less than one meal a day. Two or three guards would take each of us to interrogate every day. They keep accusing me of providing medical aid to AQAP and ISIS and said they would free me if I helped them to fight against both groups. On the third day we were being held, they let us call our families. Until then our families had no idea where we were.
On the sixth day, guards put Muzahim and one of his colleagues into a car and drove them to Crater, another part of Aden, and released them on the side of the road. The guards released seven more over the next two days, Muzahim said. On April 19, they released one more detainee after he negotiated his release and had his family give the Houthis who were holding him a car and 500,000 Yemeni Riyal (US$2,300). On April 21, the Houthis released the remaining three men from the group after their families turned over a car and 22,000 Saudi Riyal ($5,900), Muzahim said.
The laws of war prohibit the detention of health workers unless they are engaged in military operations. Continuing to detain someone and compel a third party to do something, such as paying money for their release, amounts to a hostage-taking. Taking hostages is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.