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Yemen's war shifts as Saudi-led airstrikes back Saleh loyalists against Houthis


An alliance between Houthis and forces loyal to ex-President Saleh has collapsed, marking a turning point in the conflict. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all sides to cease fighting and make way for aid.

A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against Shiite rebel targets on the outskirts of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on Sunday in an apparent move to bolster forces loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh against their former allies, the Houthis.

On Saturday, Saleh said he is open to discussing the conflict with Saudi leaders, after his alliance with Iran-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis collapsed earlier this week, marking a major turning point in the conflict.

Read more: Yemen — Between conflict and collapse

"I call on our brothers in neighboring countries … to stop their aggression and lift the blockade … and we will turn the page," Saleh said in a televised speech.

The former president's remarks found support in the Saudi-led coalition, with the military bloc saying it was "confident" of Saleh's strategy shift.

Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in March 2015 to prop up the internationally-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Forces loyal to Saleh, who ruled Yemen to 2012, supported Houthis for three years before their alliance collapsed

'Street war' in Sanaa

Yemen's capital has been hit hard by heavy fighting between Saleh loyalists and Houthis since their partnership collapsed. Residents said they were shutting themselves inside their homes to avoid sniper fire and shelling in Sanaa's central quarters.

"Sanaa is becoming like a ghost town. There is a street war and people are holed up in their houses," said an activist who works with the International Organization for Migration. "If the confrontation continues many families will be cut off" and stranded inside their residences, he added.

Read more: Opinion — Suffering in Yemen is on Saudi leaders' hands

In late 2014, Houthis backed by Saleh loyalists captured the capital, prompting Yemen's internationally recognized government led by Hadi to flee to Aden.

By March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition had launched  a deadly aerial campaign against the rebels.

More than 15,000 people have been killed, roughly half of them civilians, according to the UN.

The devastation has pushed the country to the brink of famine and prompted a cholera epidemic affecting nearly a million people.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday urged all sides to cease fighting and allow humanitarian aid to flow "because millions of children, women and men risk mass hunger, disease and death."

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
War: The 'root cause' of Yemen's disasters

The UN has identified conflict as the "root cause" of Yemen's crises. Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the war erupted in 2014, when Shiite Houthi rebels launched a campaign to capture the capital, Sanaa. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a deadly campaign against the rebels, one that has been widely criticized by human rights groups for its high civilian death toll.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Fighting keeps food from the famished

The conflict has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching large parts of the civilian population, resulting in more than two-thirds of the country's 28 million people being classified as "food insecure." Nearly 3 million children and pregnant or nursing women are acutely malnourished, according to the UN World Food Program.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Displacement: Converging crises

More than 3 million people have been displaced by conflict, including marginalized communities such as the "Muhammasheen," a minority tribe that originally migrated from Africa. Despite the civil war, many flee conflict in Somalia and head to Yemen, marking the convergence of two major migration crises in the Middle East nation. Yemen hosts around 250,000 Somali refugees, according to UNHCR.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Cholera: A deadly epidemic

The number of suspected cholera cases has exceeded more than 2 million and least 3,700 people have died from the waterborne bacterial infection in Yemen since October 2019, said the WHO. Although cholera can be easily treated, it can kill within hours when untreated.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Unsuspecting victims of the'war on terror'

In Yemen, violence goes beyond civil conflict: It is considered a strategic front in the war on terrorism. The country serves as the operational base for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, dubbed the "most dangerous" terrorist group before the rise of the "Islamic State." The US routinely uses drones to target al-Qaida leadership. However, civilians have often been killed in the operations.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Children's fate: Future marred by tragedy

In a country paralyzed by conflict, children are one of the most at-risk groups in Yemen. More than 12 million children require humanitarian aid, according to the UN humanitarian coordination agency. The country's education system is "on the brink of collapse," while children are dying of "preventable causes like malnutrition, diarrhea and respiratory tract infections," according to the agency.

Yemen: An ever-worsening crisis
Peace: An elusive future

Despite several attempts at UN-backed peace talks, the conflict continues to rage on. Saudi Arabia has vowed to continue supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. On the other hand, Houthi rebels have demanded the formation of a unity government in order to move forward on a political solution. A peace deal, however, remains elusive.

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Targeting nuclear plant

Meanwhile, Houthis claimed Sunday they had launched a cruise missile at a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, UAE authorities swiftly denied that a missile had targeted its power plant, which is still under construction.

Read more: Yemen's war explained in 4 key points

The nuclear power plant was "fortified and sturdy against all possibilities, and enjoys all measures of nuclear safety and security that such grand projects require," said the UAE's disaster management authority.

Houthis had previously attempted to hit high-profile targets with missiles launched from Yemen, including the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Going to school in wartime
Lessons continue despite destruction

These girls are attending a class at their school in the Yemeni port city of Hedeidah despite the fact that a wall has been almost completely taken out by a Saudi-led air strike. The country has been enmeshed in a bloody civil war for three years now, and the conflict shows no sign of ending. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.

Going to school in wartime
Learning in a barn

Syria is another country in the Middle East wracked by civil conflict, with millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Some of the displaced children are seen here being taught in a barn for lack of school buildings in the rebel-held area of Daraa in southern Syria. Chairs are also in short supply, meaning several of the children have been forced to sit on stones instead.

Going to school in wartime
Failed deal

Although Iran and Russia, which both back the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, made a deal with rebel backer Turkey to make Eastern Ghouta a "de-escalation zone" from July, the agreement has been repeatedly violated. This school in the Eastern Ghouta village of Hamouria did not escape damage, and humanitarian workers have warned of a dire situation inside the enclave.

Going to school in wartime
Makeshift school

Syrian children are seen here attending classes in improvised conditions in a rebel-held area of the southern city of Daraa. Although many countries are determined that children in Syria should not become a "lost generation" for lack of schooling, the war is making it difficult and sometimes impossible for lessons to continue.

Going to school in wartime
Return to normality amid signs of war

This wall at a school in the Syrian village of Hazima, north of Raqqa, is full of bullet holes from the war. The extremist group "Islamic State" closed the school and many others in northern Syria when it took over the region in 2014. Now it has been driven out, children can go back to learning normal subjects instead of the extremist propaganda taught by the hardline Islamists.

Going to school in wartime
Games amid ruins

"Where do the children play?" British singer Yusuf Islam, commonly known by his former stage name of Cat Stevens, once asked in a song. These children have found their playground in this damaged school in al-Saflaniyeh in eastern Aleppo province. But one can only wish they had nicer, and safer, surroundings for their games.

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ls/cmk (AFP, Reuters, AP)