SANAA, 16 August 2009 (IRIN) – Nearly 120,000 people from various districts in Yemen’s northern province of Saada fled their homes to safer areas on the border with Saudi Arabia as renewed clashes between the army and Houthi rebels escalated over the past four days, according to Mohammed Abdussalam, spokesman for the office of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi.

“Some of these displaced families – from the most war-affected districts, such as Al Salem Saqain, Ghamr, Haidan, Shada, Malahidh, Majaz and Qataber – are now living with host families and others in camps or outdoors,” Abdussalam told IRIN on 16 August.

The government does not comment on numbers displaced in Saada while aid agencies could not confirm the figures either because of their restricted movement.

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“For the time being, we have no accurate data on the number of IDPs [internally displaced persons] as the movement of our teams is restricted to within Saada city because of intermittent clashes,” Rabab Al-Rifai, communication delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen, told IRIN.

“We provided 100 tents to some IDPs in one of the four camps and clean water is supplied on a daily basis in the camps,” she said, adding that access to clean water was the biggest challenge facing IDPs there.

Al-Rifai said that over the past three months, around 7,600 IDPs in camps had been registered with ICRC and another 4,000 living with host families.

Aid workers kidnapped, restricted

Over the past five days, a number of international humanitarian organizations – including ICRC, the UN Food & Agricultural Organization, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Medicines Sans Frontiers – sent teams to the restive province but worsening security there has limited their effectiveness, Mohammed Abdullah, a Saada councilor, said.

On 14 August, 15 Yemeni Red Crescent Society (YRCS) aid workers, including doctors and nurses, were kidnapped by rebels from IDP camps in the province, according to Saada Governor Hassan Manaa, as quoted by the Yemen news agency Saba.

Manaa said local authorities were doing their best to facilitate aid agencies’ access to the displaced.

On 12 August, the government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) discussed ways to provide more effective humanitarian aid for IDPs. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi and UNDP Resident Representative Pratibha Mehta talked about the future role of UN-affiliated humanitarian organizations in helping displaced families.

Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Yemen highlighting Saada Governorate
But the fighting has shown no signs of letting up. The government offered the rebels a ceasefire on 13 August on condition that they withdrew from conflict areas, removed their checkpoints and returned kidnapped foreigners, among other issues. The rebels rejected the offer and denied holding any kidnapped civilians.

On 14 August, 15 civilians were killed in military airstrikes on Haidan Market in Saada, according to a local councilor from Amran who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity. On the same day he said five Yemeni soldiers were killed and dozens other injured in clashes in the Harf Sifyan District of neighbouring Amran Province, some 100km north of the capital Sanaa.

Another official, also declining to give his name, said 20 Houthi fighters were killed in army airstrikes on Haidan, Dhahian, Matrah and Al-Mahadhir districts.

The ‘sixth war’ between the Yemeni army and Shia Houthi rebels broke out on 12 August after a year-old truce collapsed. The government accuses the rebels of wanting to impose a strict Islamic rule that was prevalent in Yemen until the 1960s while the rebels say they are defending their people against government oppression