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Peace in Yemen slips as fighting breaks out again

With at least 68 dead in fresh fighting, the Yemeni conflict's ceasefire looks almost imaginary.

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An air strike in Sana'a. Image: Ibrahem Qasim
An air strike in Sana'a. Image: Ibrahem Qasim

Internationally backed peace talks in Switzerland appear to be at risk of total collapse after Houthi rebel leaders have failed to attend the fourth day of the talks, and fresh fighting broke out. They stated that they considered the ceasefire to be over after troops aligned with the Yemeni government launched a series of targeted strikes, seizing a Houthi controlled town in the north-west of the country.

Editor: The talks have now officially collapsed, and the next round is to be held in January.

At least 68 people are reported to have died in fresh fighting which occurred near the town of Harad. Yemeni military forces reported that they had lost 28 soldiers, while Houthi troops said that they had lost 40 men.

The ceasefire, implemented on Tuesday morning, has seen countless violations with fighting raging across the nation, putting serious stress on the peace talks underway in Switzerland. Though the Houthi leadership have not yet released an official statement, there are serious doubts over whether the talks will continue for fairly obvious reasons. The Houthi's are now unwilling to trust the government to honour any future ceasefires. The feelings of distrust appear to be mutual, with Saudi military sources being quoted on Friday vowing to increase strikes against Houthi forces.

Whilst the fifth day of the peace talks is now underway, the ceasefire appears to have all but ceased to exist, with both sides refusing to meet face to face. All discussion is being conducted through the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who is shuttling between the two parties in an attempt to salvage the situation.

Part of the reason for the government led attacks on Thursday appears to be due to the refusal of the Houthi's to release a number of senior Yemeni government officials held captive by Houthi rebel forces. As the Houthi's are refusing to release the prisoners until a permanent ceasefire can be agreed, their mutual distrust may well be the stumbling block for these peace talks.

The Yemeni government and Houthi's have been at war since February this year when Houthi forces seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, overthrowing the internationally recognised government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour in the process. The government then fled to their stronghold of Aden, declaring it the capital until the recapture of Sanaa. Saudi Arabia has been leading a multinational air campaign in support of the internationally recognised government, which has seen numerous civilian casualties.

The conflict can be traced back to historical divisions within the country between Shia and Sunni tribal groups. The Sunni majority makes up about 2/3rds of the population, and Sunni areas for the most part back the internationally recognised government. The Houthi's are Zaidi's, an offshoot of the Shia sect of Islam, and they have long felt that they have been politically and economically marginalised by the Sanaa government. They take their name from the leader of a 2004 uprising who was killed by the Yemeni military. The current conflict is one amongst almost a dozen since the unification of Yemen in 1990.

Shelling in Sana'a. Image: Ala Assamawy
Shelling in Sana'a. Image: Ala'a Assamawy

The question of where the conflict will go from here is very broad. With the backing of the Saudi's and international coalition, the Sanaa government will most likely win in the long run. With total air superiority and access to far better funding, in a war of attrition it seems unlikely that the Sanaa government could lose. However, any such conflict would be incredibly bloody, especially given that the divisions are upon ethnic and religious lines. If the peace talks are through some miracle successful, we could see a greater degree of autonomy given to the Houthi's in exchange for military assistance against both Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the offshoot of Islamic State which has also formed in recent months.

With distrust rife however, it seems likely that for the most part hopes of a lasting ceasefire being established in the near future are something to be hoped for, but by no means expected.

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