In abrupt crackdown, Yemen’s Houthis seize UN staffers, aid workers

UN doesn’t immediately comment, but officials say rebels have come under increased international sanctions and strikes amid their attacks on global shipping during Israel-Hamas war

Forces loyal to the Houthis in Yemen participate in a military parade on the occasion of the 34th National Day to commemorate Yemeni unity, in Sanaa, on May 22, 2024. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
Forces loyal to the Houthis in Yemen participate in a military parade on the occasion of the 34th National Day to commemorate Yemeni unity, in Sanaa, on May 22, 2024. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — At least nine Yemeni employees of United Nations agencies have been arrested by Yemen’s Houthi rebels under unclear circumstances, authorities said Friday, as the rebels face increasing financial pressure and airstrikes from a US-led coalition. Others working for aid groups also likely have been taken.

The developments come as the Houthis, who seized Yemen’s capital nearly a decade ago and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since shortly after, have been targeting shipping throughout the Red Sea corridor over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

But while gaining more attention internationally, the secretive group has cracked down on dissent at home, including recently sentencing 44 people to death.

Regional officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief journalists, confirmed the details. Those held include staff from the United Nations human rights agency, its development program, the World Food Programme and one working for the office of its special envoy, the officials said. The wife of one of those held is also apprehended.

The UN declined to immediately comment.

The Mayyun Organization for Human Rights, which similarly identified the UN staffers held, named other aid groups whose employees were arrested by the Houthis across four provinces — Amran, Hodeida, Saada and Saana. Those groups did not immediately acknowledge the detentions.

“We condemn in the strongest terms this dangerous escalation, which constitutes a violation of the privileges and immunities of United Nations employees granted to them under international law, and we consider it to be oppressive, totalitarian, blackmailing practices to obtain political and economic gains,” Mayyun said in a statement.

Activists, lawyers and others also began an open online letter, calling on the Houthis to immediately release those held, because if they don’t, it “helps isolate the country from the world.”

Yemeni security forces stand guard during a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on April 26, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their affiliated media organizations did not immediately acknowledge the development. However, the Iranian-backed rebels planned for weekly mass demonstrations after noon prayers Friday, when Houthi officials typically speak on their actions.

It’s unclear what exactly sparked the crackdown. However, it comes as the Houthis have faced issues with having enough currency to support the economy in areas they hold — something signaled by their move to introduce a new coin into the Yemeni currency, the riyal. Yemen’s exiled government in Aden and other nations criticized the move as the Houthis turning to counterfeiting. Aden authorities also have demanded all banks move their headquarters there.

“Internal tensions and conflicts could spiral out of control and lead Yemen into complete economic collapse,” warned Yemeni journalist Mohammed Ali Thamer in an analysis published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bloomberg separately reported Thursday that the US planned to further increase economic pressure on the Houthis by blocking their revenue sources, including a planned $1.5 billion Saudi payment to cover salaries for government employees in rebel-held territory.

File: A doll is seen at a site of Saudi-led airstrikes targeting two houses in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The war in Yemen has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more. The Houthis’ attacks on shipping have helped deflect attention from their problems at home and the stalemated war. But they’ve faced increasing casualties and damage from US-led airstrikes targeting the group for months now.

Thousands have been imprisoned by the Houthis during the war. An AP investigation found some detainees were scorched with acid, forced to hang from their wrists for weeks at a time, or were beaten with batons. Meanwhile, the Houthis have employed child soldiers and indiscriminately laid mines in the conflict.

The Houthis previously have apprehended four other UN staffers — two in 2021 and another two in 2023 who still remain held by the militia group. The UN’s human rights agency in 2023 called those detentions a “profoundly alarming situation as it reveals a complete disregard for the rule of law.”

The Houthis are members of Islam’s minority Shiite Zaydi sect, which ruled northern Yemen for 1,000 years until 1962.

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