War-torn Yemen began marking the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan Thursday after a wave of Islamic State group bombings, with little hope of a ceasefire and a worsening humanitarian situation.
Simultaneous bombings targeted Shiite mosques and offices in the capital late Wednesday, killing at least 31 people and wounding dozens, medics and witnesses said.
Exploding as worshippers flocked to mosques for sunset prayers, they were claimed by the radical Sunni Muslim IS as “revenge” against Shiite Huthi rebels, whom they consider heretics and who have been battling government forces for months.
Ramadan is observed worldwide by more than 1.5 billion Muslims, who believe the Koran was revealed to their prophet Mohammed during this month in the Saudi city of Mecca in 610 AD.
Throughout the month, believers abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex from dawn until sunset, when they break their fast with an elaborate meal known as iftar.
But in Yemen, this year’s iftars will be a luxury. The United Nations says a “catastrophic” humanitarian crisis has left 80 percent of the population — 20 million people — in need of aid.
The rebels have overrun much of the Sunni-majority country and, along with their allies among forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been the target of Saudi-led air strikes since March.
– Fisticuffs in Geneva –
UN-brokered talks between the warring parties are stalling in Geneva, after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched negotiations on Monday with a plea for a Ramadan truce.
But there was violence even in Geneva, when fisticuffs broke out Thursday at a Geneva press conference by the rebel delegation’s leader.
Hamza al-Huthi was addressing reporters when a woman in a headscarf barged in and threw a slipper at him — a huge insult in the Arab world.
He promptly threw it back.
The woman was quickly joined by six men who shouted slogans against the rebels and started raining blows at them, screaming “Killers, you are spreading death and disease in South Yemen.”
The melee lasted several minutes, with bottles hurled, before the intruders were hauled out.
The humanitarian situation is particularly dire in the southern port city of Aden, battered by nearly three months of air strikes and fighting.
Aden was struck by more air strikes at dawn while fighting raged between the rebels and forces loyal to exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, witnesses said.
The city’s streets, usually busy with Ramadan shoppers, were empty.
– Empty shelves –
“It’s the first time we don’t feel happy that Ramadan has begun,” said newspaper employee Abdulrahman Anis. “We haven’t received salaries since the crisis began in March.”
“Food supplies are thin and triple the usual prices. Supermarket shelves are completely empty.”
The health situation is also deteriorating, with diseases such as malaria, typhoid and dengue fever spreading fast across Aden, where bodies are left on the streets for days amid intense fighting.
“Every day we receive between 90 and 100 patients infected by dengue fever,” said Marwa Marwan, a doctor at the emergency department of Al-Breihi hospital.
She said that each day 10-15 people die from the mosquito-borne disease, which causes fever and acute pains in the joints, because of the lack of medicines.
The UN’s Ban pleaded with the warring sides this week to observe a “humanitarian pause for at least two weeks” to coincide with the start of Ramadan.
Yemen’s war has killed more than 2,500 people since March, according to UN estimates.
Across the border in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, the target last month of anti-Shiite IS attacks, King Salman said in a Ramadan speech that the kingdom must shun “sedition, unrest and sectarian tensions”.
“Since its founding by Abdul Aziz, the Saudi kingdom has preached moderation and support for the oppressed around the world because it believes in the values of brotherhood and humanism,” he said.
But as he preached moderation, the coalition announced that a Saudi officer had been killed by a landmine on the border with Yemen a day earlier.
At least 39 people, civilians and troops, have lost their lives in shelling and border skirmishes since March 26 when the coalition began its bombing campaign in Yemen.