Houthi rebels in Yemen have continued their advance on the government’s northern stronghold of Marib after the Biden administration cut aid to a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni nations seeking to prop up the Yemeni government.
Marib city, 100 miles north-east of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, is the Saudi-backed Yemeni government’s last foothold in the north.
A key producer of natural gas and oil, Marib has received significant funding from Saudi Arabia in recent year. The Saudis have intensified air strikes on rebels, carrying out more than 100 since 10th February, to stop them from capturing the city.
The capture of the oil-rich province would strengthen their position in negotiations to end the war and create a new government.
Two weeks ago, the Biden administration ended its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations and delisted the Houthis from its list of foreign terrorist organisations amid warnings from aid groups that it would cause the situation in Yemen to deteriorate.
Since then, the US State Department has warned the Houthis not to see the move as a sign of weakness calling on the group to end their offensive.
A spokesman for the state department, noted that “the Houthis are under the false impression that this Administration intends to let its leadership off the hook. They are sorely mistaken.”
On 19th February, the office of the UN’s high commissioner of human rights, (OHCHR), warned that as the front line advances on Marib refugee camps in the nearby mountain district of Sirwah are going without water, electricity and health services. As a result, thousands have fled to the city of Marib, 20 km away.
A spokesperson for the OHCHR, Liz Throssell, called on all parties to adhere to international law and protect civilians and the internally displaced. “Given the potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences, we call on all parties to the conflict to de-escalate the situation and remind them of their obligations under international law to protect civilians from the adverse effects of the armed conflict”, she said.
Pleading for forces to protect “freedom of movement”, she called on both sides of the conflict to ensure “the safe passage of civilians, including IDPs and migrants who are trying to leave Marib, as well as allowing humanitarian workers and assistance to reach civilians in the area at all times.”
Marib had been relatively untouched by the six-year conflict until recently, becoming a safe haven for thousands of internally displaced people (of which there are 800,000 in Yemen) seeking to escape the conflict.
“Marib was the success story of the war,” said Dr Elisabeth Kendall, Research Fellow in Arabic at Oxford University. “It was a haven in the middle of a war. It’s a place that provided hope. Symbolically, having that completely turn around is really tragic.”