Yemen crisis: Houthi rebels inform UN they are ready to join talks to end conflict

Militants' leader tells Charlene Rodrigues in Sanaa that they are willing to negotiate and it is the Saudi-led air strikes – which have killed civilians – that are prolonging the bloodshed

Charlene Rodrigues
Friday 09 October 2015 23:05
The presidential palace in Sanaa, which has so far remained unscathed despite constant Saudi air strikes, is controlled by Houthi rebels led by Mohammed Ali
The presidential palace in Sanaa, which has so far remained unscathed despite constant Saudi air strikes, is controlled by Houthi rebels led by Mohammed Ali

The compound was once the home of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Now, however, the Houthi control the heavily fortified Republican Palace in Sanaa’s al-Qasr street.

There are innumerable security checks. Visitors are transported clandestinely in vehicles with dark glazed windows after intense background checks. The security is tight because in the compound can be found Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the leader of the group that has plunged Yemen into civil war since it seized Sanaa as part of its takeover in January.

There is no dress code for the soldiers who guard Mr Ali Houthi: some are in military uniforms; others don white robes and carry rifles strapped across their shoulders. The insurgents’ curious stares are mixed with worried smiles as they go about their morning tasks.

The presidential palace now occupied by Mr Ali Houthi is still unharmed by near-constant air strikes from the Saudi-led coalition opposed to the Houthi rebels and seeking the return of President Hadi. In the reception hall, where traditional Yemeni stained-glass windows and chandeliers remain, The Independent meets Mr Ali Houthi.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi rebels

Burly with a youthful face for a man in his late 30s, he is dressed in a white thawb, a traditional Yemeni scarf, with a jambiyaa (sword) strapped to his waist. When asked why it took three months to allow an interview, Mr Ali Houthi laughs.

He saves much of his scorn not for the Saudi Arabian government, which is fighting the Houthi on many fronts in Yemen, but for America. He says: “We believe from the start of the war, the person responsible for what is happening in Yemen is the US. They are the ones who are instigating Saudi Arabia to fight us. America creates foreign policy for the world and gets the GCC [Gulf Co-operation Council] to adopt it. We are also a group of Yemeni people with values and principles of the Yemeni people, united with Yemenis against injustice.”

Mr Ali Houthi adds: “Yemenis are civilised people who believe in democracy. Those who hold the authoritarian ideology spread chaos everywhere.” The leader of the Houthis says the rebel group has saved “billions” by weeding out corruption instigated by Yemen’s ousted government. “We tried to stop corruption and identify what caused it. For example, in the Central Bank of Yemen, after saving billions of dollars, the money was not used for the community. The government officials pocketed it for themselves.”

He adds: “All the oil companies, American or French, are really corrupt here. They used to celebrate parties in New York, and take money from the people and nothing was left for the people here.”

When asked about the claimed financial backing of the Houthis by Tehran, Mr Ali Houthi is unequivocal. “If I had Iran’s financial support, I would be in Riyadh now,” he says. “In this war, did you see any Iranian rockets leave from Yemen? Did you see us driving Iranian tanks? Did you see us driving armed vehicles from Iran?

“We challenge Saudi GCC countries to fight Iran. Iran is so dangerous to them: go fight Iran, not us. Don’t make the Yemeni community suffer.”

The Houthis, who control much of Yemen along with the party of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite bombing raids from a Saudi-led Sunni Gulf coalition, have said they have informed the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of their readiness to join talks.

“We know that the solution should always be with talks,” Mr Ali Houthi says. “We believe any war in the world can only end with national dialogue.” Ceasefires instigated in May and July both failed. Mr Ali Houthi says this was due to an absence of Saudi guarantees that bombing would stop. “We decided to combat those who fight us,” he says.

“We cannot be calm while they are fighting us. When we stopped the fighting at the Saudi border, they [the GCC] continued the air strikes and they breached the ceasefire.”

He accuses the Saudis of crimes including the targeting of civilians. Human rights groups have levelled similar accusations against the rebels under the control of Mr Ali Houthi, however. “They target jails with their air strikes and they target hospitals, roads, markets, schools and hotels,” Mr Ali Houthi says. “They targeted a wedding in al-Mokha killing more than 100 people.”

That incident, at the end of September, was followed this week by another wedding party being hit by Saudi-led air strikes. On Friday, the UN humanitarian head said he was “deeply disturbed” by the reported 47 civilian deaths. Stephen O’Brien called for a swift and impartial investigation, saying that “with modern weapons technology, there is little excuse for error”.

The World Health Organisation has said 5,248 people had been killed and 26,191 injured in Yemen by 24 September. Even as Mr Ali Houthi speaks, outside the palace there are no signs of the Saudi jets stopping as they continue to pummel nearby mountains. As the sounds of the pounding overwhelm the conversation, Mr Ali Houthi shows no signs of panic.

A Yemeni walks by in front of the grafitti sprayed wall of the closed US embassy in Sana'a

He says: “Saudi Arabia sends weapons and arms to the tribesmen so they can fight us. I just tell them, ‘Keep it. It’s a gift. Get ready to fight them.’ Yemeni tribes have the tradition they don’t want to be a colony; they want to be in trade or business. This is the way before previous wars or even before the Egyptians or the Ottomans occupied us. Many people tried to conquer us, but Yemeni people will get rid of them.

“We always tell our enemies: ‘Don’t fool yourself that you will win against Yemeni people because Yemeni people will regain control’.”

Asked what the Houthis hope to achieve in Yemen, Mr Ali Houthi says: “We believe we are strong because we rely on the community to fight this war. We don’t rely on power from outside. You know how Mahatma Gandhi relied on the community to fight the British? We want to use the same strategy.”

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