As many as a third of soldiers fighting in Yemen’s civil war are children according to international groups, who have accused all sides of intensifying the recruitment of minors in the conflict.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Houthi rebels were using children as runners and fighters. Some of the youngsters, a number of whom have been killed, are as young as seven years old, the group says.
“The Houthis have ramped up their recruitment of children,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at HRW. “Commanders and other armed groups should stop using children or risk prosecution for war crimes.”
The group accuses all sides in the conflict of deploying children, including loyalist militia groups opposed to the Houthis and Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The use of child combatants is specifically outlawed under international agreements.
In an interview conducted by HRW in the Houthi stronghold of Amran, 16-year-old “Ibrahim” said his family had encouraged him to join the Houthis and had given him a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The Houthis provided ammunition. Ibrahim fought for the Houthis when they entered Amran in July last year and was shot in the leg. Five 16-year-old friends are also fighting with the Houthi forces, Ibrahim said.
According to the rights group, the Houthis have a long record of using child soldiers. However, in November 2012, the head of the Houthis, Abdul Malik Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, promised to work towards banning child soldiers on the battlefield. Unicef says that the promise of money and food is convincing families to give up their teenage sons.
The Shia Houthis overran the capital Sana’a last year, forcing the Sunni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee. A Sunni-led coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, began bombing Houthi targets in March, but it has seemingly had little effect in stalling the rebels. Riyadh has agreed to a five-day ceasefire to allow for humanitarian access to places such as Aden, which has been particularly hard hit. The cessation was due to begin late Tuesday night, but at least 10 attacks took place on targets around Sana’a earlier in the day. Since the bombing began, at least 1,400 people have been killed, according to UN figures. The new UN envoy to the country, Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived in Sana’a, calling for a dialogue between the various factions.
On Monday night, Saudi state television showed columns of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, which the country’s Defence Ministry said was a “massive” contingent of forces being moved to the Yemeni border.
The war is seen by many as a proxy for two of the region’s most powerful nations, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. An admiral in the Iranian navy said that Tehran’s 34th fleet would accompany a cargo ship to the Houthi-held port of Hodaida. The Iranians insist they are providing cover for humanitarian supplies, but the Sunni countries accuse the Iranians of providing arms to Houthi fighters. The Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation and urged Iran to deliver any humanitarian aid for Yemen to a UN distribution hub in Djibouti. US Army Col Steve Warren warned that it would not be helpful if Iran is “planning some sort of stunt”. He said using Iranian warships to accompany the ship was not necessary.
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