As the world celebrated Mother’s Day on 21 March, Taiz in southwest Yemen was enduring heavy infighting in the Old City between forces affiliated to the Yemen National Army and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party militias, said eyewitnesses.
Twenty armed groups affiliated to the military wing of Islah faced off with the Abul-Abbas militias, described by the city’s local authorities as “outlaws”. The battle resulted in civilian deaths and injuries. By Sunday, 50 were killed and 200 injured, in addition to the destruction of 83 residential buildings.
Eyewitnesses said the 21 March infighting was the bloodiest the city has endured since the expulsion of Houthi militias from Taiz governorate.
Local sources revealed that the clashes were most intense in the Old City, near Hael School, regarded as a military barricade and weapons store for the Abul-Abbas group.
Violence between Abul-Abbas and Islah erupted after the latter accused Abul-Abbas of assassinating members of the party’s military wing.
When Taiz Governor Nabil Shamsan arrived in the city, he sent 20 armed groups from Islah’s military wing to expel Abul-Abbas gunmen from the city.
Islah’s forces headed to Taiz’s Old City and engaged in four-day bloody confrontations with Abul-Abbas group. The clashes resulted in the burning of Al-Mudhafar Hospital and many of its patients, while people fled the city fearing for their lives.
“Fighting was renewed between security forces affiliated to Islah Party and militias from Abul-Abbas on the morning of Saturday, 23 March. The violence spread to different parts of the city and smoke rose in the air in many areas,” reported Crater Sky, a Yemeni independent news Website.
“The battles taking place in Taiz are evidence of the state’s lack of vision and vulnerability. The state should be the umbrella for everybody, away from the authorities of parties and fighting forces that use the state to fight their enemies and settle scores,” writer Nabil Abdallah said in an article.
When Shamsan ordered a halt to the violence, Islah didn’t comply. “The security campaign in Taiz rejected the directives of the governor, Chairman of the Security Committee Nabil Shamsan, to cease fire and return to its barracks. Governor Shamsan issued three urgent letters to the leader of the Taiz military axis and Taiz police director to quickly stop the security campaign,” Crater Sky reported.
“An informed source in Taiz said the governor felt betrayed by the military axis and police leaderships in Taiz after they didn’t comply to his orders to withdraw the security campaign after it deviated from its main purpose, resulting in the death of tens of civilians in addition to numerous violations in the Old City. The source added that the military axis leadership refused to take the governor’s calls and directives, stating that the governor was trying to reach, since 23 March, the president to inform him of the reality on the ground and to request quick intervention to contain the situation,” the Website added.
The source also said “the governor feels he has fallen into a trap set up by the axis leadership. The source revealed Shamsan is intent on resigning his post if the security campaign is not brought to an immediate halt.”
The scene in Taiz was indescribably painful as civilians headed for noon prayers amid violent clashes and the shelling of women and children, calling on President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Governor Shamsan to stop the attack on the overpopulated Old City.
“It was the Old City’s residents that temporarily brought the Brotherhood’s intifada to a halt when they headed to the Bab Al-Kabir (an entrance gate to the Old City) and performed the noon prayers amid the hell of the fighting. It was the people of Taiz who headed to the governorate’s headquarters after their houses were shelled. They had to go out to express their opinion, fearing not the snipers positioned on top of buildings and not the experienced militias spread in the districts and streets. This is the first popular message clearly expressing Taiz residents’ rejection of the war crimes committed by Brotherhood militias and their leaders who didn’t comply to the orders of Governor Nabil Shamsan,” wrote Mohamed Said Al-Sharaabi in an article titled “Taiz Has Spoken”.
Hashtags denouncing “the Brotherhood’s burning of Taiz” spread on social media platforms. It looks like Islah Party is aware of the value of Taiz, overlooking the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, an international strategic waterway.
The strait is the reason why Islah is trying to control Taiz under the cloak of its military wing that operates beneath the umbrella of the state.
Shamsan’s return to Taiz didn’t spare him a barrage of accusations. Mohamed Dabwan Al-Sharaabi wrote on News Yemen Website that “it seems the Brotherhood’s Islah has allowed the new governor Nabil Shamsan to enter Taiz on the condition of implementing the directives of ‘Salem’, who supervises the brigade of ‘vagabonds’ under the leadership of his son, Azzam Al-Farhan, who is close to Al-Qaeda ranks.
It also seems that the Brotherhood of Taiz were able to receive a presidential decree from Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, vice president to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, for their pronounced leader Abdou Farhan, aka Salem, to supervise the campaign, alongside Adnan Rozeik, the leader who didn’t hide the tone of Al-Qaeda in his voice.”
Al-Sharaabi pointed out that “the Brotherhood’s media has been inciting against the governor since his appointment to the post, to terrorise and weaken him, accusing him of being a follower to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and the UAE’s employee, forgetting that it was they who called him the sheikh who memorised the Quran.”
The writer revealed that sources said Shawki Said Al-Mekhlafi had returned from Turkey six months ago and that he was the brother of Mahmoud Al-Mekhlafi who destroyed Taiz and committed the most heinous of crimes before fleeing to Turkey.
Upon arriving in Taiz, Shawki said Qatar tasked him with supervising Camp Yefres in the directorate of Jabal Habashi. The sources added that Yefres hosts a military training camp affiliated to Islah Party and that two Islah followers attested to this information.
In Aden, southerners acted in solidarity with their brethren in Taiz, posting pleas to save Taiz on social media networks. Vice President of the Southern Transitional Council Hani Bin Brek called on the alliance to intervene quickly to save Taiz.
He tweeted: “Islah commits genocide in Taiz”, requesting more media coverage of the crimes against the city. He continued: “Taiz burns today at the hands of the terrorist, Brotherhood Islah Party gangs. They raided houses, terrorised women and children… We call on the alliance for immediate intervention, and we plead to rights organisations to document these massacres as war crimes.”
The city overlooking the strategic Gate of Tears has turned into a ghost town. Its residents can’t access drinking water, let alone food and medical supplies. Asharq Al-Awsat Website reported Monday that calm was restored in Taiz following violent clashes in the Old City between factions loyal to the legitimate government and that led to the death and injury of tens of civilians.
Local sources and eyewitnesses fear the infighting will whet the appetite of Houthi militias to expand militarily and take over the city and liberated directorates again, benefiting from the chaos, lack of security and the infighting between government-clad parties.
Taiz is an ancient city overlooking the precious and priceless Bab Al-Mandeb. Will the government embark on serious, effective steps to protect Taiz? Will the alliance get to the bottom of what is really taking place in Taiz? The city of science and culture needs to be protected, and its people, together with the government and the alliance, have to save it from parties and militias settling scores on its land.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Blood and fire in Taiz