Yemeni soldiers trained in Saudi Arabia hold their weapons in Marib, a city that is heavily armed even by the standards of Yemen.
Celebratory tracer fire from a wedding lights up the night sky over Marib, a city that is heavily armed even by the standards of Yemen, where the ready availability of weapons helped start civil war and is now preventing anyone coming out on top.
Yemenis often say there are three guns for every person, a boast that has become an urgent concern in a country where the United Nations says the humanitarian situation is “critical”.
The precise number of weapons is impossible to verify, but the profusion of arms on display in Marib makes the three-to-one claim look not far off.
Almost all of the men walking in the city centre, their cheeks full of the mild narcotic qat leaf, had an assault rifle slung across a shoulder; many of them also sported pistols in garish holsters or had hand grenades in jacket pockets.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since March in a conflict perpetuated by shifting alliances based on region, religion and tribe.
Easy access to weapons has enabled widely ranging groups to enter the fighting, including Islamist militants who have seized control of the port city of Mukalla, several hundred kilometres east of Marib in the Hadramout region.
UN experts cited the abundance of arms in Yemen as a regional worry in 2013, when Al Qaeda linked militants already had a major base in the south, but the war has given such worries even greater urgency.
Houthi militia, allied to Iran, and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh were closing in on Marib a month ago, but were forced back by local fighters, some trained by Gulf countries, which assisted them with air strikes.
The Houthis and Saleh’s forces have now been pushed into the hills 30km away, but the periodic sound of distant explosions is constant evidence in Marib that the war remains only a short drive away.
A slight 18-year-old in a brown robe and turquoise headscarf, rifle dangling casually over his arm, said the first thing he did when his village of Arhab near the capital Sanaa was overrun by the Houthis was to go to a famous arms market.
“I went to Jihana and bought weapons. Then I came to Marib. That was four months ago. Now, God willing, we will fight the Houthis back. Soon we will be in Sanaa,” he said, identifying himself only by the nickname ‘Abu Arhab”.
At Marib’s gun market, a Kalashnikov assault rifle sells for a few hundred dollars and a hand grenade for $30, said Yemeni soldiers who accompanied Reuters on a visit to the city last week, and who all bought their weapons locally.
Heavier weapons are also available, they said, including rocket propelled grenades, mortars and light artillery - popular items with local tribal leaders long before the war began and used as much to impress followers as for any martial value.
Wars in the 1960s, 1980s, 1990s and last decade, the involvement of a range of regional and international powers, the constant fighting in nearby countries like Somalia and the disintegration of the army have facilitated the influx of arms.
On the southern edge of Marib, near its 3,000-year-old Sabaean temples and an ancient ruined city, the damage to a small hamlet revealed the high-water mark of the Houthi advance. A few soldiers were sweeping a field for landmines.
The forecourt roof of a petrol station had been staved in by an airstrike, the side of a mosque had been punched through by a shell and the facades of two nearby adobe houses built in the pretty local style were sprayed with bullet holes.
Further back on the road into the desert, near several of the checkpoints erected every few kilometres, often around an oil drum between traffic lanes, sat small rusting tanks with rounded turrets that appeared to date from decades ago.
In this volatile environment, weapons are often customised: an assault rifle turned Tommy gun via the addition of a big circular magazine, an anti-aircraft cannon mounted in place of a machinegun on the back of a pick-up truck, three fighters sitting proudly behind.
Among groups of soldiers and irregular fighters in civilian clothes, the merits of, and problems with, their weapons are a frequent topic of conversation. While most are purchased from Marib’s market, the guns of a lucky few who have been trained in Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis were given them by Gulf states.
However, whatever training these soldiers received in Saudi Arabia, they still handle weapons with casual carelessness rather than respect. In cars on bumpy roads, rifles juggled around, muzzles pointing first at one passenger then another.
In the back of a pick-up truck rolling through the fertile farmland around Marib, where orange groves hemmed the road, a young soldier pulled out a bullet and used its point to push through the ring pull on a drink can that had stuck.
The carrying of arms in Yemen is a habit that starts young: two children, who looked 13 or 14 years old, one in a maroon sarong and black headscarf, the other in a striped blue shirt, were strolling through the market place each with a Kalashnikov.
Further along, by a snack stall selling hard boiled eggs that customers could dip in a hot sauce, Saleh Fahdi was carrying an assault rifle. He was 12 years old, he said, and bought the gun with money given him by his father a month ago.
“It’s mine,” he said.
Hadi government to attend UN-sponsored peace talks
Yemen’s government will attend UN-sponsored talks with the Houthis and their allies, a government spokesperson said yesterday, in a fresh bid to end months of fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people.
The Saudi-backed government said on Saturday it had been studying an invitation from the United Nations to attend a new round of talks in an undisclosed location.
“The decision has been taken to attend (the talks) and a letter will be sent to the UN secretary general (about that),” Rajeh Badi, the government spokesman, said.
UN special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has been in Saudi Arabia for discussions with Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other senior Yemeni officials over the talks.
A previous round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in June failed to achieve a breakthrough.
At least 5,400 people have been killed in the fighting in the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, and the United Nations says the humanitarian situation is “critical”.
Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab military intervention since March to try to restore Hadi’s government, now based in Aden.
A battalion of Sudanese troops arrived in Aden on Saturday, military officials said, bolstering the Arab forces.
A military source in Aden said that 300 Sudanese soldiers and officers arrived by sea on Saturday. Their purpose was to “help maintain security for the city against the Houthis and Saleh”, the source said, referring to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose supporters have sided with the Houthis.
“Our troops in Yemen are ready to do their military task under the command of the alliance military leadership,” Sudanese army spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Khalifa Alshami said. “Sudan is committed to restore legitimacy in Yemen.”
The security situation in Aden has remained a concern as residents report that armed men, including Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda, roam the streets. On Saturday, unidentified gunmen shot dead a UAE national at a shop in Aden, according to a local security source. The UAE state news agency Wam reported that a coalition soldier had died but gave no further details.
The Arab coalition spokesman confirmed the arrival of the Sudanese troops to Arab television channels. They will join contingents from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the ground.
Hadi supporters, backed by Arab forces, recently made some gains in the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait and in Marib, a province east of Sanaa and home to much of Yemen’s oil wealth. But the Houthis remain in control of much of the country, despite almost daily air strikes.
At least 18 Houthi fighters and Saleh loyalists were killed in air strikes overnight on Taez province, south of Sanaa, medics said. The ancient port of Al Mokha and the provincial capital were among the targets, they said.
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