Staff writer, Al Arabiya News Channel Monday, 29 February 2016
A top military Yemeni official said the Iran-backed Houthi militias and their ally’s forces have started recruiting “mercenaries,” coming mostly from African countries, Al Arabiya News Channel reported Monday.
Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Nasir al-Tahiri said the move by the Houthis and forces allied to to the toppled Ali Abdullah Saleh was to buttress their weakening fronts at the capital Sanaa and the northwestern governorate of Saada.
Meanwhile, military sources said Saleh has ordered Republican Guards forces to withdraw from central al-Baydha, southwestern Ibb and Dhammar (west of al-Baydaha) to be consolidated in Sanaa as battles heat up.
It is not the first time that an abroad force is helping with the militias in Yemen.
Last week, the internationally recognized Yemeni government said it has evidence that the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah is backing the Houthi militia group.
President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognized government has declared Aden the country’s provisional capital after the Houthis and their allies drove it out of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen since September 2014.
The rebels controlled Aden for months before government loyalists pushed them out in July.
Because of the unrest gripping Aden, Hadi himself and many senior officials in his government spend most of their time in Riyadh, which has led an anti-rebel coalition since March 26 last year.
Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon - Friday prayers had just ended inside Ain al-Hilweh, and about 200 residents congregated near one of the entrances to this Palestinian refugee camp near the southern city of Sidon.
Chants protesting at recent changes introduced by UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, to its hospital system rang out from the assembled crowd. In the middle of the protest stood Saleh al-Youssef, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) political faction in southern Lebanon.
"These changes must be reversed. Life in the camps such as Ain al-Hilweh is already a grave humanitarian issue. Healthcare, like education, is a fundamental right," Youssef said, as the crowd nodded in agreement.
In January, UNRWA started requiring Palestinian refugees to pay between five and 20 percent of their hospital bills. Previously, the refugees had secondary healthcare fully covered by the organisation.
Secondary healthcare refers to treatments requiring a short period in hospital, such as childbirth, intensive care and medical imaging.
The cost of healthcare in Lebanon ranks among the highest in the Middle East and North Africa region, and many Palestinians - whose access to formal job markets in Lebanon is limited by state-imposed restrictions - fear they will no longer be able to afford treatment.
Established in 1949 as a temporary refugee agency to assist the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by Israel's 1948 establishment, UNRWA recorded a budget deficit of more than $100m last year - the largest in its history.
The deficit pushed the organisation to slash its educational budget and suspend $100 monthly domestic aid subsidies which had previously been offered to each family. Those changes have caused resentment among the approximately 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. Residents of Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, have been hit particularly hard.
Built to accommodate 10,000 Palestinians forced into exile in 1948, mostly from the Galilee region of present-day Israel, Ain al-Hilweh is an impoverished, 1sq km compound of narrow avenues and electrical wires, surrounded by concrete breeze blocks and Lebanese Army checkpoints.
Since 2011, the camp's population has grown from around 70,000 to more than 90,000 owing to the arrival of mainly Syrian-Palestinians displaced by the war in Syria. The influx has boosted competition for jobs, pushing down wages and raising unemployment, and created an endemic housing crisis.
Protests against the health cuts held outside UNRWA facilities in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian camps have become common, and some have even blamed the cuts for the deaths of a small number of Palestinians earlier this year.
People have labelled these adjustments an 'intifada against UNRWA', because the health programme is one of our core services.
Zizette Darkazally, UNRWA's public information officer for Lebanon
Zizette Darkazally, UNRWA's public information officer for Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that the organisation was not responsible for those deaths. She pointed out that UNRWA's annual hospital budget in Lebanon for 2016 remained the same ($10m) as in 2015, and subsidies for tertiary healthcare actually increased.
"People have labelled these adjustments an 'intifada against UNRWA', because the health programme is one of our core services," Darkazally said.
"Because tertiary is very expensive and people often struggle to afford it, we raised the ceiling on this cover to 60 percent from 50 percent, and the ceiling of the intervention from $4,200 to $5,000. In order to cover the difference, we reduced secondary coverage," she said. "There were no budget cuts; we just readjusted the services to cover those with very expensive-to-treat, life-threatening conditions."
Despite such assurances, Youssef and others at the demonstration in Ain al-Hilweh said they were committed to keep demonstrating until the cuts were revoked.
"We will continue protesting in Ain al-Hilweh, but we are also discussing initiatives to hold a sit-in at the headquarters of the European Union, among other things," he said.
Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh, including the PLF, Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihadist Movement, have all expressed support for the current demonstrations. That unity is uncommon in a camp that is home to many armed Palestinian groups, and where outbreaks of violence between rivals are frequent.
The 1969 Cairo Accord prohibits the Lebanese Army from entering Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Last summer, a spree of political assassinations and gun battles pitted Fatah and its supporters against fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jund al-Sham. The clashes left many dead, and buildings throughout the camp remain pockmarked with bullets.
"The situation now is calm. There is coordination between all the factions to maintain the peace," said Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the head of the Islamic Jihadist Movement, who has played the role of arbitrator during previous clashes.
But many in the camp remain concerned about potential future cuts by UNRWA.
"The health issue is an important issue. But I am also worried that at the start of the new year, [UNRWA] schools will not open," Abd Abu Saleh, who heads a committee that manages affairs inside the Ain al-Hilweh camp, told Al Jazeera.
"If more UNRWA services are cut, I think it is inevitable that more people will seek alternative solutions, and leave."
In the second half of 2015, following the UNRWA cuts to domestic assistance and the outbreak of violence in Ain al-Hilweh, many primarily younger residents of the camp joined hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees leaving Lebanon for Europe.
From a small, second-floor office in a school and social centre run by the NGO Nabaa in Ain al-Hilweh, camp resident Nidal told Al Jazeera: "There is no work; there is no stability. With these cuts, how are we meant to live?"
The 47-year-old widow, who spoke under a pseudonym, said she paid around $100 a month for medication to treat hypertension and rheumatism. She fears that if her condition deteriorates, the cuts will render her unable to afford hospital care.
"Even people not directly affected by the cuts now have no security. They are scared that if they become sick, they will be turned away at the hospital doors," said Nida.
Last year, one of Nidal's daughters left Ain al-Hilweh with her husband for Germany.
"It has become common to hear of people leaving," explained Ibtisam Mosri, 39, whose cousin also travelled from Ain al-Hilweh to Europe last year.
With unemployment high in the camp and UNRWA assistance across sectors being scaled down - and with the threat of a return to violence never far away - both Nidal and Mosri said they understood why leaving Ain al-Hilweh had become an increasingly attractive option for some.
"I support the demonstrations," Nidal said. "This is about the rights of the Palestinian community. But members of my own family have left. What could I say to stop them? People here are suffering."
"We are overwhelmed. NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are doing their best to respond, but we are calling for European governments to act now."
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Idomeni, said a rumour that the border crossing with Macedonia was opening brought hundreds to the razor-wire barrier.
"There was a state of panic and hope that finally those gates towards Western Europe would open. It's an emotional roller-coaster for these refugees and migrants who are here," she said.
Athens square becomes temporary camp as refugees are stranded
About 50 refugees were allowed into Macedonia on Monday.
"The refugees are saying, 'What we've seen here is going to divide opinion in Europe'," our correspondent said.
"It's a completely different atmosphere at the moment from last year and they are aware of it. People are saying, 'This is not going to help us. They will see this and we will not be welcome'."
Refugees in limbo
Nearly 8,000 refugees are in limbo at the Idomeni border camp which has a capacity of 2,000, according to Greek officials.
Many are spread out into the surrounding fields as they wait for Macedonian authorities to let them continue their trek through the Balkans.
Only a tiny trickle of people from specific countries have been allowed to cross every day.
Later in the day, Macedonia sent special police reinforcements by helicopter to its border with Greece.
More than one million refugees and migrants have passed through the camp in the previous 12 months, travelling from Turkey to Germany and other Western European countries, where they hoped to secure asylum.
Known as the jungle, the camp in Calais was used by refugees who wanted to migrate to Britain [Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]
Elsewhere on the continent, French authorities began dismantling on Monday part of a refugee camp known as the "jungle" near Calais, after an expulsion order issued by the local administration was upheld last week by a judge.
Workers in bright construction vests and helmets took down tarps and sheets of material that had been cobbled together to create shelters at the camp, which was home to those seeking a future in nearby Britain.
Scores of riot police stood guard, keeping journalists and volunteers out as helmeted workers tackled the shelters one by one.
Fabienne Buccio, a police prefect who had ordered the camp evacuated and dismantled earlier this month, showed up as the operation began.
Her office decried "intimidation" tactics by some activists who she said were manipulating migrants into refusing to accept government offers of shelter.
"Really three houses out of four - I mean three huts out of four, or three tents out of four - were already totally abandoned with a lot of garbage inside," she said.
Migrants, she said, "had the time necessary to gather their belongings. The rest was good enough to throw away."
After first sending welcoming messages, European authorities are now struggling to handle the situation.
Hungary has fenced off its borders, refusing to accept any migrants, and other Eastern European countries say they will not take in anyone under an EU refugee-sharing deal.
In recent weeks Austria - at the north end of the Balkan corridor - has severely restricted the inflow of refugees, causing a domino effect through the Balkans.
Many of those countries are now refusing to let Afghan refugees in, although UN authorities say no one has explained to them who made this decision or why.
Diplomatic tensions are rising too, with criticism mounting against Austria. Greece has threatened to block decisions at an upcoming EU-Turkey summit unless the bloc forces members to shoulder more of the refugee burden.
For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued on Sunday another robust defence of her quest for a European solution to the crisis.
She is resisting calls at home and elsewhere in Europe for limits on refugees as such as those imposed by Austria.
"We can't do this in such a way that we simply abandon Greece," she said on ARD television.
"This is exactly what I fear: When one country defines its limit, another must suffer. That is not my Europe."
At next Monday's summit, EU leaders "will discuss how we can restore the [passport-free] Schengen system step by step with Greece," Merkel said.
However, Reinhold Mitterlehner, Austria's deputy chancellor, said on Monday the refugee restrictions "are necessary [and] we're going to maintain them".