Siege of Dammaj
The Siege of Dammaj started in October 2011 when the Houthis, a Zaidi-led rebel group which control the Saada Governorate, accused Wahhabi loyal to the Yemeni government of smuggling weapons into their religious center in the town of Dammaj and demanded they hand over their weapons and military posts in the town. As the Salafis refused, Houthi rebels responded by imposing a siege on Dammaj, closing the main entrances leading to the town. The town is controlled by the Houthis and the fighting was mainly centered on Dar al-Hadith religious school, which is run by Salafis, although its founder (imam Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi'i) rejected Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. The Salafis from Dammaj and the current imam of Dar al-Hadith, Sheikh Yahya Hajoori claims that they are totally against al-Qaeda and all that they stand for.
In December 2011, a ceasefire was signed in which both sides temporarily agreed to the removal of all their military checkpoints and barriers around Dammaj. Neutral armed men from the Hashid and Bakil tribes are deployed around the town to ensure both sides adhere to the ceasefire. However, fighting erupted again in October 2013 when Houthis shelled a Salafi mosque and the adjacent religious school, anticipating an attack from Salafi fighters who had gathered in Dammaj. Houthi fighters later advanced and took over many positions evacuated by outgunned Salafi fighters in the area of Kitaf wa Al Boqe'e District, north of Sa'dah city and subsequently blows up the symbolic Dar al-Hadith religious school.
A ceasefire was brokered by the Yemeni government under president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in January 2014. As part of the ceasefire, Yemeni troops have been deployed to the town of Dammaj and evacuated all Salafist fighters and their families as well as foreign students to the neighboring Al Hudaydah and Sana'a, handing over victory to the Houthis.
Salafi establishment in Yemen
The roots of the sectarian conflict in Yemen can be arguably connected to Saudi Arabia's systematic proselytization of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, inside Yemen. Such effect of this proselytizing has somewhat caused resistance from Zaydi Shia demographics who perceives Wahhabism as a threat to their existence.
Since the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia tries to export its Salafi hegemony in order to maintain some leverage over the Yemeni government. Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, a Yemeni student of the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, founded the Salafist Dar al-Hadith institution in Dammaj in 1979, located in the heart of Saada governorate which would later be the stronghold of the Houthi group. The center targeted Zaydi adherents and converted them to Salafism.
During the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the government of Yemen recruited over 5,000 Salafi fighters to fight alongside the government. Houthis also alleged that the government was using al-Qaeda fighters as mercenaries to fight against them. At least 69 students from Dar al-Hadith were killed during Operation Scorched Earth, fighting on the government's side.
When the 2011 uprising against Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh started, the Houthis joined the protests and used the opportunity to seize control of Sa'dah in March. The Salafi group in Dar al-Hadith, however, denounced the protests, siding with the government. In July, clashes also erupted between Houthis and militants loyal to the Sunni Islamist Al-Islah party in Al Jawf Governorate, in which over 120 people were killed and in August, an al-Qaeda bombing killed 14 Houthis in Jawf, after which the Houthis killed four students from Dar al-Hadith in a vehicle in Sa'dah city.
The fighting started on 15 October 2011, after the Houthis received a leaked letter from Dar al-Hadith's imam, Sheikh Yahya al-Hajoori, in which he urged Yemeni commander Yahya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh to fight against the Houthis and a 13-year-old Houthi supporter was physically assaulted in Dammaj by Salafis. The Houthis demanded that the Salafis empty their military posts in the city, claiming that the Dammaj school has made attacks against Houthi supporters and is attempting to take control of military positions outside of their area by continue to incite them, describing the Houthis as non-believers and carrying out military training for their supporters, but the Salafis refused. The Houthis responded by besieging Dar al-Hadeeth on 18 October, by surrounding it with snipers and attacking the Salafi-held al-Baraqa Mountain on 30 October. The Salafis claimed the siege does not allow any food or medicine to enter the complex and have called upon Yemen authorities to break the siege. The Houthis claimed they are only blocking weapons from entering the area.
In response to the siege, tribesmen loyal to the Salafi group blocked the al-Boqa road, connecting Sa'dah to Saudi Arabia and tribesmen from the JMP blocked the Sana'a-Sa'dah road. Houthi-appointed Sa'dah governor Fares Mana'a tried to mediate a ceasefire in which the Houthis would re-open the road and both sides would withdraw to their old positions. The ceasefire however, lasted merely four hours, after which a new round of fighting broke out in which one Salafi fighter was killed. The school and surrounding areas, including 10,000 inhabitants were besieged for over two weeks.
A ceasefire, crafted by local tribesmen, which lasted one week, was broken on 25 November, when Houthis started shelling the Salafi fighters' positions in the town, killing three and wounding two. Houthi leader Saleh Habra said the Yemeni government was supplying arms to the Salafis and trying to help them set up a base near the Saudi border, stating the new attack was to cut off their arms supplies. Salafi leader Sheikh Yahya al-Hajouri responded by declaring a jihad against the Houthis, which he described as "rejectionists".
The Houthis launched a raid into the town in the pre-dawn hours on 26 November, which lasted until the afternoon of 27 November. According to a Houthi leader Dhaifallah al-Shami, the raid was in response to the Salafis rejecting a ceasefire offer by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and continued fighting. A total of 24 Salafis were killed and 61 injured during the raid. The deaths included two Indonesian and two United States citizens. The two Indonesian's were later confirmed as Zamiri and Abu Soleh, both 24 years old. Al-Shami confirmed that several Houthis were also killed during the raid, which the Houthi commander Mohammed Abdulsalam put the number at less than ten. On 30 November, the Houthis shelled the town again, injuring 26 people.
On 3 December, the Houthis agreed to ease the blockade by allowing food aid supplied by the Red Cross to enter the area. However, they did not allow anyone to go in and out. Salafi students also accused the Houthis of confiscating a third of the food for themselves, a claim denied by the Houthis. According to the Red Cross four children had died of hunger and three elderly men of lack of medications, between 3 December and the start of the siege. The town was still said to be short on fuel. Houthis claimed a ceasefire had been put in place, however fighting reportedly continued on both sides and on 7 December, an attack launched by Salafi fighters in Dammaj killed 3 Houthis. Houthi leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi responded in a statement saying that "In a step that reveals their malicious intentions, they opened fire on us, killing three people, these unprovoked attacks are unjustified and are aimed at igniting a sectarian war in the country." The Houthis responded by shelling Salafi positions on the al-Baraqa Mountain, killing six people and injuring 15. A Salafi spokesman claimed that "al-Houthis have taken advantage of the ceasefire and made advances on al-Buraqa Mountain" and said that he expected casualties to rise as violence would continue On 7 December, new clashes broke out in which three Houthis and four Salafis were killed. According to eyewitnesses, the Houthis generally had the upper hand during the fighting, although Salafis managed to capture several Houthi positions. Houthis barricaded their positions on the al-Baraqa.
On 8 and 9 December, sectarian clashes broke out on the main highway in Kutaf, which the Houthis had been blockading for weeks. According to government officials, the Houthis attacked a convoy sent by the Sunni Wa'ela tribe to bring food and medicine to Dammaj. The Houthis however, claimed that "the so- called aid caravan en-route to Dammaj was a military caravan and it attacked Houthi followers Thursday evening in Kutaf area" The Houthis called the convoy a provocation through which foreign forces were trying to ignite sectarian violence in the region. In total eight Houthis and six tribesmen were killed and fifteen people were injured in the fighting.
On 19 December, Houthis shelled Dammaj, killing five Sunnis including a child. On Tuesday fighters from the Sunni Wa'ela tribe attacked the Western side of Dammaj in an attempt to bring aid into the town. Five Wa'ela tribal fighters and four Houthis were killed during the clashes.
On 22 December, a ceasefire was signed in which both sides agreed to the removal of all their military checkpoints and barriers around the town. Neutral armed men from the Hashid and Bakil tribes would be deployed around the town to ensure both sides adhere to the ceasefire.
Renewed clashes (Second phase)
On 29 October 2013, fighting started again when Houthis shelled a Salafi mosque and the adjacent religious school, anticipating an attack from 4,000 Salafist fighters who had gathered in Dammaj. 58 were killed and a hundred wounded in the Salafi side, with no reports of casualties on the Houthi side.
On 5 January 2014, two days of clashes between Shia rebels and Sunni tribesmen fighting alongside hardline Salafists in northern Yemen killed at least 23 people, sources said on Sunday. Fighting has centred for months on a Salafist mosque and Koranic school in Dammaj, which has been besieged by the Shiite rebels known as Huthis. But the conflict has spread in the northern provinces, embroiling Sunni tribes wary of the power of the Huthis, who have repeatedly been accused of receiving support from Iran. On Sunday, at least 10 people were killed in Al Jawf Governorate in clashes between rebels and armed men from the Daham tribe, a tribal chief told AFP. Seven people were killed at Harf Sufyan, in the northern Amran Governorate, another tribal chief said on Sunday, while two others died in shelling of Dammaj, in Saada Governorate, Salafist websites reported. Four people died in fighting that took place in Al Jawf Governorate on Saturday, another tribal chief said. Huthi rebels this week took over positions evacuated by Salafist gunmen in the area of Kitaf wa Al Boqe'e District, north of Sa'dah city, witnesses said, adding the rebels demolished the Salafist Dar al-Hadith religious school and 20 houses. The rebels have also warned border guards to evacuate the Bart al-Anan crossing point with Saudi Arabia, in Al Jawf Governorate, according to the head of the force, Colonel Qassem Thawaba.
By January 2014, a ceasefire was brokered by the Yemeni government after sectarian violence which left over 830 people killed in 2013. As part of the ceasefire, Yemeni troops deployed to the town of Dammaj and would evacuate all Salafist fighters and their families to the neighboring Al Hudaydah Governorate.
Following the siege, the government of Indonesia tried to evacuate its citizens from the Dar al-Hadith institute where over 100 Indonesians were said to live. Yemen's Indonesian ambassador, Agus Budiman, said it was difficult for them to evacuate the students because most of them did not want to leave and were armed and "ready for jihad", adding that the government was "worried about their condition". They were eventually contacted with permission of sheihk al-Hajoori and the Houthis said they would ensure the safety of their evacuation, although they did not allow embassy staff to enter the compound or take the bodies.
Yemeni Salafi Islamists held a rally Sana'a on 30 November, led by Mohammad al-Ammari, to protest the siege. Ammari said that thousands of people were being besieged and deprived of food and medicines, accusing the Houthis of trying to create a Shi'a state in North Yemen. Salafi clerics at the rally warned the Houthis that they would be willing to deploy fighters to Dammaj.
The Yemeni National Council (an opposition council established on 17 August 2011 to lead the revolution against Saleh) send a delegation led by Mussed Al-Radaee, general secretary of the Nasserite Party to Sa'dah. A similar delegation was sent by protesters from Sanaa's Change Square. Neither group has released their report yet.
On 3 December, in a message was posted on jihadist website Shumukh al-Islam, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi announced they would be deploying fighters to Dammaj to combat the Houthis. Another Yemeni al-Qaeda leader, sheikh Abu Zubair Adil al-Abab released a statement during a lecture in which he stated al-Qaeda would be providing training to Sunni fighters in Dammaj and warned the Houthis that "You tried our strength, and the day of al-Ghadir is not far from you." Nasir al-Wuhayshi is himself an alumnus of one of Dar al-Hadith's offshoots and according to Said Obaid, chairman of the Al-Jemhi Centre for Researches and Studies, "graduates of these schools are almost ready to be Al-Qaeda members." On 12 December, an audio message was posted on jihadist websites by al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim al-Rubaish which said that "We [al-Qaeda] were saddened by the Shiite rebels' months-long siege on our people in Dammaj in Saada. Therefore, we declare a Jihad to eliminate such malignant germs from the surface of the region."
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