Middle East

Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?

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Smoke rises above Sanaa, Yemen following a Saudi-led coalition air strike targeting a Houthi rebel position (31 August 2016) Image copyright EPA
Image caption More than 60% of civilian deaths have been the result of Saudi-led air strikes, the UN says

Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest countries, has been devastated by a war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement.

More than 6,800 people have been killed and 35,000 injured since March 2015, the majority in air strikes by a Saudi-led multinational coalition that backs the president.

The conflict and a blockade imposed by the coalition have also triggered a humanitarian disaster, leaving 80% of the population in need of aid.


How did the war start?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Houthi rebel fighters entered Sanaa in September 2014 and took full control in January 2015

The conflict has its roots in the failure of the political transition that was supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to Mr Hadi, his deputy, in November 2011.

Mr Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of many military officers to Mr Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over the presidency after an uprising in 2011

The Houthi movement, which champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and fought a series of rebellions against Mr Saleh during the previous decade, took advantage of the new president's weakness by taking control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas.

Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis - including Sunnis - supported the Houthis and in September 2014 they entered the capital, Sanaa, setting up street camps and roadblocks.

Media captionWho are the Houthis? The BBC's Mai Noman reports from Sanaa

In January 2015, the Houthis reinforced their takeover of Sanaa, surrounding the presidential palace and other key points and effectively placing Mr Hadi and his cabinet ministers under house arrest.

The president escaped to the southern port city of Aden the following month.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A Saudi-led multinational coalition intervened in the conflict in Yemen in March 2015

The Houthis and security forces loyal to Mr Saleh then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Mr Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015.

Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi's government.

The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France.

The rise of Yemen's Houthi rebels

Meeting the Houthis - and their enemies


What's happened since then?

Media caption"There's a game children play here. It's called 1, 2, 3 airstrike": Gabriel Gatehouse

After more than a year-and-a-half of fighting, no side appears close to a decisive military victory.

Pro-government forces - made up of soldiers loyal to President Hadi and predominantly Sunni southern tribesmen and separatists - were successful in stopping the rebels taking Aden, but only after a fierce, four-month battle that left hundreds dead.

Having established a beachhead, coalition ground troops landed in Aden that August and helped drive the Houthis and their allies out of much of the south over the next two months. Mr Hadi and his government returned from exile at the same time and established a temporary home in Aden.

But in the past year, despite the air campaign and naval blockade continuing unabated, pro-government forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels from their northern strongholds, including Sanaa and its surrounding province.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pro-government forces have driven the rebels out of most of southern Yemen

The Houthis have also been able to maintain a siege of the southern city of Taiz and to continue firing missiles and mortars across the border with Saudi Arabia almost daily.

Jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of so-called Islamic State (IS) have meanwhile taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the south and stepping up their attacks, notably in government-controlled Aden.

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A young girl and a city struggling for life

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What's been the impact on civilians?

Media captionThis man was treated in Taiz without any anaesthetic, reports Safa AlAhmad

Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting and repeatedly been the victims of what activists have described as serious violations of international law by all parties.

By early October, at least 4,125 civilians had been killed and 7,207 others injured, according to the United Nations. With just under half of the population under the age of 18, children constituted a third of all civilian deaths during the first year of the conflict.

The destruction of civilian infrastructure and restrictions on food and fuel imports have also led to 21 million people being deprived of life-sustaining commodities and basic services.

Media captionThe BBC's Nawal al-Maghafi visits an area of Yemen where major aid agencies can no longer operate

The UN says 3.1 million Yemenis are internally displaced, while 14 million people are suffering from food insecurity and 370,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death.

More than 1,900 of the country's 3,500 health facilities are also currently either not functioning or partially functioning, leaving half the population without adequate healthcare.

Dying in silence: Yemen's devastated health system

One woman's lonely struggle against famine in Yemen

Practising medicine under fire in Yemen

Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe


Why have peace efforts failed?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said he wanted a "sustainable solution to the conflict"

There was hope of a breakthrough at a second round of UN-brokered talks that opened in Kuwait in April 2016, with both the Houthis and the Saudis seemingly under pressure and willing to negotiate.

However, the talks collapsed three months later, triggering an escalation in the fighting that the UN said resulted in the number of civilian casualties rising dramatically.

Mr Hadi's government says the political process can only proceed if UN Security Council resolution 2216, which calls for the rebels to withdraw from all areas they control and lay down their arms, is fully implemented.


Why should this matter for the rest of the world?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Suicide bombings claimed by so-called Islamic State have killed dozens of people in Aden

What happens in Yemen can greatly exacerbate regional tensions. It also worries the West because of the threat of attacks emanating from the country as it becomes more unstable.

Western intelligence agencies consider AQAP the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach, and the emergence of IS affiliates in Yemen is a serious concern.

The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is also seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

Gulf Arab states have accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran has denied this, and they are themselves backers of President Hadi.

Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world's oil shipments pass.

The UK's delicate balancing act in Yemen

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