Operation Scorched Earth

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Operation Scorched Earth
Part of the Shia insurgency in Yemen
Houthi map.png
Approximate Area of Houthi-Rebel Influence
Date11 August 2009 – 12 February 2010
(6 months and 1 day)


  • Ceasefire after rebels accepted the government's truce conditions.

Sunni tribes[2]
 Saudi Arabia




Iran ( Quds Force)

 North Korea ( Korean People's Army Special Operation Force)[5][6][7]
Commanders and leaders

Flag of Yemen.svg Ali Abdullah Saleh
Yemen Ali Mohammed Mujur
Flag of Yemen.svg Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar[1]
Flag of Yemen.svg Amr Ali Mousa Al-Uuzali  
Flag of Yemen.svg Ali Salem al-Ameri  
Flag of Yemen.svg Ahmed Bawazeir  
Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud
Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg Khalid bin Sultan

Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg Saleh Al-Muhaya

Abdul-Malik al-Houthi
Yahya Badreddin al-Houthi
Yousuf al-Madani  
Taha al-Madani[9]
Abu Ali Hakem[9]
Abdullah al-Qa'ud[9]
Abu Nasir[9]
Nasir Muhammad al-Sayfi[9]
Abd al-Muhsin al-Nimri[9]
Shaykh al-A'sir al-Ka'bi[9]

Mohammad Abd al-Salam

30,000 in-theatre [10]
66,700 total[11]
3,000 tribal fighters[2]
Saudi Arabia:
199,500 total[11]
Jordan: 2,000[3]

al-Qaeda: 300[12]

100,000–150,000 Houthi rebels[13]

200 Somali fighters[14]
Casualties and losses

126+ KIA[15]
(Government confirmed)
144–159 KIA[16]
(Independent estimate)
400–500 POW[17]
3 fighter jets lost[18]
69 Salafi fighters killed[19]
Saudi Arabia:
133 KIA[20]
470 WIA[21]
6 MIA[20]
(Saudi claim)

Total: 328–361 killed

600+ KIA[22]
(Government claim)
458-544 KIA[23]
(Independent estimate)
1,000 POW[24][25] (including at least 26 Somalis)[26][27]

Total: 458–600 killed

Total Yemeni Casualties:
8,000 killed[28][29]
Saudi Civilian Casualties:
4 civilians killed[30]

50,000 displaced[31]

Operation Scorched Earth (Arabic: عملية الأرض المحروقة) was the code-name of a Yemeni military offensive in the northern Saada Governorate that began in August 2009, marking the fifth wave of violence in an ongoing insurgency pitting the Zaidi Shia Houthis against the government. In November 2009, fighting spilled over the border into neighboring Saudi Arabia, resulting in a Saudi military incursion into Yemen itself, the first military operation Saudi Arabia conducted since 1991.[32]


Skirmishes and the clashes between the two sides during 2009 began in June. Nine foreigners were abducted in June while apparently on a picnic in Saada Governorate. The bodies of three of them, a South Korean teacher and two German nurses were discovered. Two German children where freed in May 2010 by combined Saudi and Yemeni forces. They, together with their younger sibling, were separated from their parents. Their sibling is presumed dead. Their parents (both German), and a Briton are still missing and their status is unknown. It is still unclear who was behind the kidnapping. Initial official statements said the group was apparently seized by Houthi rebels. However, Yemen's news agency later reported Houthi rebels accused drug cartels of abducting the group and killing the three. In addition, a spokesman for the rebels accused regional tribes of being behind the kidnappings and slayings.[33]

A government committee criticised the fighters for not abiding by an agreement to end hostilities announced by the Yemeni president in July 2008. During July and early August 2009, local officials said the fighters had taken control of more of Saada Governorate from government forces. They seized an important army post near Saada's capital on a strategic highway linking the capital Sana'a with Saudi Arabia after 12 hours of intense combat.[34]

The Operation[edit]

August–September 2009[edit]

After the government promised an "iron fist" against the rebels, Yemeni troops backed by tanks and fighter aircraft launched a major offensive on rebel strongholds on 11 August 2009.[35] Air, artillery, and missile attacks targeted the Malaheedh, Mahadher, Khafji and Hasama districts, including the headquarters of rebel leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.[34] After two days of bombardment, the Yemeni government laid out ceasefire terms to the rebels, which included demands for information on the fate of six Europeans who disappeared in June. The rebels rejected those terms and fighting continued.[33] After three weeks, the provincial capital Sa'dah was further cut off with mobile landlines being suspended after the Houthis shelled a communications tower in the neighboring Amran province. Rebels held out in Sa'dah neighborhoods and old mountain fortresses around the city.[36]

In September the first of many ceasefires that would follow the course of the war was agreed.[37] The Yemeni army pushed to secure the road linking Sa'dah to Harf Sufyan, launching salvos of shells to "demine" and "remove roadside bombs" for humanitarian convoys.[38] On 17 September, an air strike claimed the lives of more than 80 people in a camp for displaced people in the 'Amran Governorate. A large group of refugees caught the sites of passing Yemeni pilots on missions in the area. The forces then strafed the civilians repeatedly.[39] Rebels and government forces also saw heavy action around Sa'dah the same day. Yemeni press releases and military officials claimed that several Houthi leaders were among the dead.[40]

Eid attacks[edit]

Another ceasefire was agreed on 19 September in commemoration of the Islamic holiday, Eid ul-fitr.[41] The government announced on state television that the ceasefire would go into effect for three days with the possibility of becoming a permanent ceasefire on certain conditions. The Houthis responded by saying they would abide by the ceasefire in exchange for prisoners, some of which they claim to have been held for four years.[42]

Both sides, however, claimed that neither side laid down arms. The Houthis asserted that the government continued air and rocket attacks while the government claimed the Houthis launched attacks in the Amran and Saada provinces.[43][44] A Human Rights Watch report noted how the Houthis attacked the village of Mudaqqa on 16 September, prompting a government response in shelling.[45]

The rebels massed and attacked Sa'dah the next day, attacking from three directions in a pre-dawn strike.[46] Hundreds of fighters used at least 70 vehicles to assault checkpoints in the city while attempting to storm the Republican Palace.[47] After four hours of combat, the attack was repelled once air support was called in. The Yemeni government claimed to have killed 153 rebels and captured 70 while claiming to have lost two soldiers and 20 injured.[47][48][49]

October 2009[edit]

Fighting continued on into October with Houthi rebels claiming to have captured the town of Munabbih, one of fifteen districts of the Sa'dah governorate.[50][51]

On 2 October, the Houthis announced that they had successfully shot down a Yemen Air Force MiG-21 fighter jet in the al-Sha'af district. A senior Yemeni military official denied the claim and said the plane ran into a mountain peak because of a technical fault. Contradicting state media, another Yemeni military commander told the AFP news agency that the aircraft had been "flying at low attitude" when it was hit.[35] Just three days later, a Yemeni Sukhoi jet crashed northeast of Sa'dah in the Alanad district; the rebels claimed to have shot it down while the government further attributed the crash to technical problems.[52][53][54] Further reports by Yemeni sources claim that these planes were shot down, adding that agents of Hezbollah armed with shoulder-fired missiles were responsible.[55] Both the Saudi Al-Arabiya and Kuwaiti Al-Seyassah news networks noted that a group of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon were either killed or captured by Yemeni forces.[56]

The official Yemen News Agency reported more heavy fighting in Sa'dah on 9 October, with Houthis launching suicide attacks and gaining some territory before government forces gained the upper hand, killing 100 and wounding more than 280.[57] Dozens more casualties were reported in fighting over the following days.[22][58] By the offensive's tenth week, rebels captured a military base near the Saudi border in Razeh district of Sa'dah governorate. The fighters also seized a military center, a government building, and even Razeh's airport.[59]

October was also the month where Somali forces joined the fighting alongside the Houthis. Some 200 Somali recruits arrived on boats via the Red Sea and were mainly sent on suicide missions against government and military targets in Saada City. Yemen would later claim to have captured 28 Somali troops.[60] Other sources indicated that Somali fighters were used for engineering methods, primarily by digging trenches to hide ammunition and launch ambushes from the mountains.[61] By December, a Somali diplomat claimed that many Somali refugees suffered abduction by the Houthis as they fled into Saudi Arabia. Those who refused faced execution.[62]

Saudi Incursion[edit]

By early November, the rebels stated that Saudi Arabia was permitting Yemeni army units to launch attacks across the border from a base in Jabal al-Dukhan, charges which were denied by the Yemeni government.[63] The conflict spilled into neighboring Saudi Arabia on 3 November when a Saudi border patrol was ambushed in a cross-border attack, killing one soldier and wounding eleven more.[64] The kingdom's news agency later added that a second soldier later died from the same clash.[65][66]

Following the cross-border ambush on 3 November, Saudi Arabia responded by moving troops to the border and striking Houthi positions on 5 November, using F-15 and Tornado jets.[67] Saudi Arabia denied hitting any targets inside Yemen, but it was reported that six Yemeni locations suffered rocket attacks, one of which received 100 rockets in one hour.[68] Residents of the coastal city of Jizan reported hearing fighter jets, along with observing armored convoys moving toward the border. The city's King Fahd Hospital was also placed on alert for treating military casualties.[69] A Saudi government adviser later said no decision had yet been taken to send troops across the border, but made clear Riyadh was no longer prepared to tolerate the Yemeni rebels.[65]

By 8 November, Saudi Arabia confirmed that it had entered the fray, claiming to have "regained control" of the Jabal al-Dukhan mountain from the rebels.[70] Around this time, Jordanian commandos, who had arrived in Saudi camps a few days prior, backed up Saudi forces in efforts to take Al-Dukhan mountain. The Jordanians reportedly sustained casualties in the attacks.[71]

As the war extended into December, reports indicated that Moroccan special forces had joined the 2,000 Jordanian commandos on the ground.[72] Clashes continued throughout the month of December along the border. As the fighting extended into January, Samira al-Madani became the first female journalist in Saudi Arabian history to report from the battlefield near the border. She also interviewed several soldiers and Prince Gazan Mohamed bin Nasser bin Abdul Aziz, who briefed her on the situation.[73]

Truce Attempts[edit]

As for Yemen, the government launched a direct attack into Saada on 7 December. Forces attacked the barricaded strongholds of the city while the government hoped for a 24-hour victory.[74] Fighting continued past 11 December with Houthi forces still holding out in barricaded houses of the Old City.[75] The battle for the city appeared to have ended following the arrest of some 200 fighters after a week and a half of fighting.[76] Abdul Malik al-Houthi reportedly suffered injuries during the fighting, but managed to escape to safety as Yemeni forces continued to engage rebels throughout the province.[77]

By 1 January 2010, Yemen's Higher Security Committee proposed a ceasefire, which was rejected.

Houthi leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi said they would stop fighting to prevent further civilian casualties and the withdrawal was a gesture for peace. Saudi General Said al-Ghamdi confirmed that the Houthis had ceased fire as result of the determined Saudi assault. Prince Khalid bin Sultan announced that the Houthis were defeated though did not declare an end to the Saudi bombing campaign to subvert the Houthis to prevent any future incursions into the Kingdom.[78]

On 30 January, Houthi rebels appeared to have accepted the Yemeni government truce offer.[79]

Clashes continue[edit]

Following the truce, the Houthis claimed that Saudis continued with air and missile attacks.[80] The situation deteriorated on 31 January after the Yemeni government turned down the truce offer by the Houthis. The offer, made by Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, was rejected because he demanded that the government end its military operations first.[81] Yemen continued with the military offensive, killing 12 Houthis in the process.[82]

Early February saw a new round of attacks by Yemeni forces on Sa'ada.[83] Saudi Arabia also rejoined the fight with air raids in support.[citation needed] On 5 February, the Yemeni court sentenced Yayha al-Houthi, the brother of the Houthis' leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, to 15 years imprisonment. The Yemeni MP was tried in absentia due to his involvement in the Shia insurgency.[84]

On 6 February, the Houthis renewed their attacks against the Yemeni government, killing 15 Yemeni soldiers in an ambush in Wadi al-Jabara district and killing 8 soldiers during street battles in Sa'dah city that day.[85][86] Saudi air raids that day destroyed four civilian residences and injured two women. The Saudi military fired 174 rockets and mortars at the rebel controlled al-Dhaher, Qamamat, Ghafereh, al-Rammadiat and Shada districts.

The last round of skirmishes occurred on 11 February with five soldiers and thirteen rebels dying in the Amran governorate. Fighting also continued in Sa'dah city and killed seven soldiers and eleven rebels. Houthis also repulsed an attempted army infiltration in al-Aqab district killing an unspecified number of Yemeni soldiers. Meanwhile, Saudis carried out 13 air raids on Harf Sufyan, Jouan and Jebel Talan districts[87]

Inside Saada City[edit]

During the fighting, roughly 20,000 refugees fled to the provincial capital. The increase in population forced residents to share houses with refugees, along with food and water.[88] Street fights and the continual breaking of ceasefires posed many problems for civilians, along with hot days and rainy nights.[89] Mobile phone networks were cut during the beginning of the war, making it nearly impossible to communicate with the outside world. United Nations aide workers were forced to pull out, but a few remained, often finding themselves pinned down in homes.[90]

Government operations were concentrated primarily in the northern portions of Old City, including the residential neighborhoods of Al-Rout, Al-Shaab, Al-Jarba, Al-Toot, and Bab Najran.[91][92][93] The Bab Najran neighborhood in particular was cited as a main rebel stronghold and suffered frequent shelling from tanks and artillery.[94] Houthi sources claimed that government forces used bulldozers to clear houses and other rebel positions during operations.[95]

A letter from a worker with the Islamic Relief organization provided a detailed account from the ground. Schools became refugee collection centers and prices hiked due to the closures of shops and businesses. Mortars, gunmen, and a government imposed curfew hindered efforts for refugees and aid workers to travel freely. Since the only hospital was located in the bombarded Old City, aid groups within Saada became the only means for the populace to gain limited amounts of food, water, and shelter.[96]


On 12 February, the Houthis accepted the government's ceasefire proposal.[97]

A Yemeni General claimed the Houthis violated the ceasefire on 12 February, claiming that four soldiers were killed in two districts while adding that an attempt was made to assassinate him.[98] The Houthis denied responsibility for this attack.[99] As the remainder of February progressed, it became clear that fighting had ceased. By the 25th, reports indicated that the Houthis, under conditions that they remain masked and not followed by security, left their final positions in northern Saada City.[100][101] Yemeni engineers followed in afterward to clear homes of mines and booby traps.[100] A United Nations team, including a representative of the UNHCR, were finally allowed into Saada City and surrounding refugee camps in April 2010.[102]


Death Toll[edit]

The exact breakdown of the casualties is unknown as neither side has released any casualty figures. However, news reports as of 6 February 2010 claimed that the Yemeni government suffered at least 126 casualties, including 19 tribal fighters, 2 generals, Sa'dah's regional security chief and 3 security guards.[15] The Yemeni government also claimed to have killed 600 Houthi fighters in the first two months of the offensive although this cannot be verified.[22]

On 23 January 2010, the Saudi government released new figures confirming 133 soldiers had been killed and 6 were still missing.[20]

Refugee crisis[edit]

With the onset of renewed conflict, camps were set up along the border area between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Other camps and settlements were dispersed throughout the Hajjah, Amran, and Al-Jawf provinces.[103] Aid agencies tried organizing routes through Saudi Arabia, since roads into the country were generally off limits.[104] The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Yemen Red Crescent Society sponsored three camps for internally displaced persons on the outskirts and within the city. A fourth camp had to be dismantled and the refugees moved after being caught in the crossfire. Prior to the war, an estimated 120,000 were already displaced as a result of the four prior wars.[105]

The northwestern village of al-Mazrak became the main collection center for refugees with three camps set up for 23,000 displaced persons and 70,000 more outside the camp. UNICEF played a major role in creating education environments for children and hiring instructors.[106] It was the only camp that was opened to United Nations workers during the war.[107]

International tensions[edit]

The conflict took on an international dimension in late October 2009 with clashes reported between the Houthis and Saudi security forces near the border.[108] Since the beginning of the operation, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Yemeni government and conducting bombing raids into Yemen.[109] Prior to this, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh held talks in the Moroccan city of Agadir with Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and King Abdullah II of Jordan.[110] Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco would later play roles in the fight against the Houthis. Morocco, which had severed ties with Iran in March of that year, noted that Tehran's alleged backing of the Houthis helped in the decision to later send troops.[72]

Around this period, Yemeni officials claimed to have captured a boat in the Red Sea that was transporting anti-tank shells. Five Iranian "instructors" were also captured.[111] Various official Iranian sources responded, calling it a politically motivated fabrication and stating that the ship was traveling for business activities carrying no consignment.[112] In Saana, the government shut down an Iranian sponsored hospital on suspicion that some of the staff, which included eight Iranians, were providing aid to the rebels. Government officials claimed that services were closed down due to a delay in rent payments, but security surrounded and blocked off patients from receiving aid.[113] As the Hajj approached during the month of November, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that "appropriate measures" would be taken in case Iranian pilgrims faced restrictions.[56]

On 13 November, the Iranian group Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom denounced the Yemeni and Saudi offensives against the Houthis.[114] Two days later, Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani accused the United States of cooperating with the Saudi campaign.[115] A few days later, Iran announced plans to send warships to the Gulf of Aden as a means to protect routes against Somali pirates. This move coincided with the Saudi naval blockade in the Red Sea to stop arms shipments allegedly from Tehran and Eritrea to the Houthis. Three Saudi warships with marine commandos from the Yanbu naval base patrolled the waters off the coast of northern Yemen.[116]

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