The Cheery in-flight magazine of Yemenia, the national airline of Yemen, still runs articles encouraging adventurous tourists to visit the coffee-growing region in the country’s north, its terraced hilltop villages a vision of Old Arabia, and the fabled eastern valleys that were once home to the Queen of Sheba. But anyone trying to get off the beaten track in Yemen these days may find a bit too much adventure. About two-thirds of the country is out of government control and in the hands of either separatist groups or local tribes, some of which have a habit of kidnapping foreign tourists to use as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government. Such hostages were rarely harmed until this June, when nine foreigners were kidnapped — including two German women and a South Korean woman whose mutilated bodies were later discovered by shepherds. After the attack, the government effectively stopped granting permission to foreigners — including journalists — to travel anywhere but the capital, Sana’a, and the coastal region around the port city of Aden.
In the past month, the government, which is Sunni-dominated, has stepped up its military offensive against Shi’ite rebels, known as Houthis, whom officials blame for the killings. It’s a continuation of a war that began in 2004, when the government killed a Houthi leader, raising fears among Yemeni followers of the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam that they were being targeted for eradication by the government and Sunni extremists. So far, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting, mostly in the northern province of Saada. The government has used aerial bombardment and artillery to try to smash the Houthis. The alleged use of collective punishment and blockades of aid to force locals to turn in rebel fighters have prompted some agencies, such as UNICEF, to compare the campaign to the government of Sudan’s actions in Darfur. [continued…]