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Colombian fighters hired by the UAE are refusing to fight in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition, claiming their contracts were to cover work in the UAE only.
The Gulf nation has been recruiting fighters from Latin America since 2010 to carry out domestic missions – including guarding pipelines and other important infrastructure projects and riot control – but have been offered increased pay to fight in Yemen as the conflict there drags on.
According to a former Blackwater employee who left the Colombian army in 1990 and has worked in Afghanistan, the UAE, Qatar, and Djibouti, these fighters “were not recruited for combat missions. It was for security and protection missions. So they are not considered mercenaries.”
In November, Colombian soldiers - along with fighters from Panama, El Salvador, and Chile – were deployed in Yemen to protect the port of Aden from attacks carried out by groups affiliated to Al Qaeda. In addition to what was thought to be a security mission, six Colombian fighters were killed alongside an Australian commander, Philip Stitman, in early December as they advanced towards the al-Amri area of Taiz as part of an offensive to regain control of the city from Houthi forces.
It is difficult to confirm the reports surrounding the fighters as the Emirati government refuses to comment on the issue, but the source said that 300 Colombian recruits “decided voluntarily” to fight in southern Yemen, a decision for which they are paid a bonus of $1000 a week in addition to the $2,000-$3,000 a month salary they already receive.
This was a smaller number than previously reportedly intended, with the UAE hoping to send 800 soldiers to fight in the conflict. "The Colombians were supposed to pass unnoticed as local Emirati troops, and that caused a large number of them to desert," he said. "They said their contract was in the UAE and not fighting other people's wars."
It is unclear how many fighters refused to fight, but a report from the Spanish language HispanTV, which is operated by Iran’s state-owned public broadcasting corporation, site “Western sources” putting the number at 300.
Latin American forces are attracted to the Emirati contracts by the money promised (one retired officer told Colombian daily El Tiempo that soldiers were attracted by the promise of security for their families if the soldiers did not return and that the they had “made a decision in response to the lack of [financial guarantees [at home].”
The Gulf monarchies like to hire from Colombia for the soldiers experience in fighting insurgencies at home and prefer to rely on mercenaries, as opposed to recruiting and training from the domestic population, as it provides a faster alternative to building a strong fighting force. “The gulf countries, and the U.A.E. in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help,” an official familiar with the operation in the Obama administration said in 2011. “They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.”
These hired hands also reduce the risk of political backlash at home from the conflict as fewer fighters after 45 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as special operations troops from the Emirates died in a rocket attack in early September.
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The war in Yemen has been grinding on for more than half a year, largely forgotten by the world’s media. This being said, another bloody incident in this increasingly deadly war has thrust the country back into the spotlight. This morning Houthi-aligned forces fired a barrage of OTR-21 Tochka ballistic missiles at Arab Coalition forces in the Yemeni town of Ma’rib. These heavy ballistic missiles caused catastrophic damage to those targeted, with at least 22 UAE soldiers confirmed dead, and another 25 allied local fighters killed. This combined with the deaths of 5 Bahraini soldiers in separate incident of cross border fighting on the Yemen/Saudi Arabian border, makes today the deadliest yet for the Arab Coalition.
But what has changed that has enabled the Houthis and elements of the Yemeni Army to strike back so hard? Conflict News spoke to Sanaa resident and security analyst Hisham Al-Omeisy to find out more about these developments.
— Hussain Albukhaiti (@HussainBukhaiti) September 4, 2015
Regarding the Houthis losses of territory in the south of Yemen, especially around Aden, following the arrival of Emirati ground troops, he explains that the Houthis have effectively made a tactical retreat.
“They lost areas to the Popular Resistance that are exactly along the lines separating North and South Yemen,” Al-Omeisy said, explaining that the Houthis have retreated to areas where they enjoy greater support.
“[The Houthis] were hemorrhaging a lot of soldiers, a lot of money and munitions, so to a lot of people they were cutting their losses.”
Regarding today’s deadly missile attack he believes it came as a preemptive strike against the Coalition forces. After a number of failed offensives into areas of strong Houthi support, the UAE, KSA and their Yemeni allies had gathered a large force of tanks, AFVs and soldiers in Ma’rib as a staging point to attack Sanaa. This force was reportedly being touted as sufficient to take Sanaa “in only a few days”.
“Marib has been reinforced heavily by the Coalition. They were basically building a huge force to in Ma’rib, so that from Ma’rib, they could come and invade the capital.” Al-Omeisy explains.
“So today, when the Houthis attacked Ma’rib, it came as a surprise to a lot of people, because people expected […] this force to move into Sanaa, not the other way around[…] It was basically a huge slap to the coalition forces.”
While the long-term outcomes of this attack still remain to be seen, it is important to note that the Houthis have continued to be able to conduct large-scale attacks without outside resupply. Rather, through their alliance with large elements of the Yemeni Army, they have access to a large amount of stockpiled weapons, such as the Tochka missiles used with devastating effect today. Despite widespread allegations of Iranian supplied weapons being used in the conflict, this is not confirmed by sources on the ground.
“It’s mostly stock they had previously, especially now they are working with the Yemeni Army which basically had access to warehouses – that is why they had those advanced weapons, in addition to those they confiscated from their opposition – weapons dropped to the Resistance,” Hisham says.
“But there is no evidence that they have been resupplied, or been given weapons by outside forces, like Iran for instance.”
Critical to the outcome of this war will be the way in which the Gulf States that form the Coalition intervening in Yemen deal with their rising military death tolls. If this causes domestic political problems for them the war could soon see a negotiated political settlement, however should it enrage these countries into a yet greater level of involvement, the war will drag on, and may yet worsen.
Around 3000 troops just landed in Aden largely under the world media’s radar
Over the last week, the entire momentum of the war in Yemen has shifted. While previously pro-government forces and the so-called Popular Resistance were trapped within the port city of Aden, now they are pushing the Houthis back in all directions. First they managed to secure the port facilities, then the entire residential region of the city, and then finally the Aden International Airport.
Many have reported these advances as being led by pro-Government fighters, however this is only half the story. What is actually occurring is far more remarkable, and strangely almost absent from the media headlines.
Last week, and over the weekend, ships arrived at the Port of Aden and began offloading armoured vehicles. This started as small columns of vehicles, which could have conceivable been ‘delivered’ to the pro-government fighters, however has now ballooned into something completely different. Hundreds of vehicles including main battle tanks, APCs, AFVs and self propelled artillery have landed in the city, and joined the fight against the mainly Shia Houthi militias.
Given the huge numbers of vehicles involved, and it would seem that these must almost certainly be regular Emirati troops. Indeed this has been effectively confirmed by comments from coalition officials who have said that 3000 troops, made up of UAE regulars and foreign-trained Yemenis had made landfall in Aden. Effectively, an entire foreign armoured division has invaded Yemen, however it is politically convenient for the Saudi-led coalition (of which the UAE is a large partner) not to talk much about it.
With the entry of these troops into the fight, the fortunes of the pro-Government side have changed dramatically. Since recapturing Aden and its surroundings, the UAE troops supported by other militias have pushed north, attacking the strategic Al-Anad air base from several sides. After days of fighting, Houthi fighters surrendered just yesterday, leaving the pro-Government side in control of the country’s largest airbase.
Despite these victories, these 3000 troops and armour alone will probably not be enough to unseat the Houthis from the rest of Yemen. There, the Iran-backed force is deeply entrenched and has managed to inflict a steady stream of causalities on Saudi border troops despite continuous aerial bombardment.
Should the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE troops wish to attain complete regime change in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, they will need to send yet more troops to the country, with the risk that they will eventually been seen as occupying powers. An alternative prospect to this would be for the former government to set up its own state in the south of Yemen, and come to some sort of ceasefire agreement. It is likely that the events of the next few months will be instrumental in deciding which of these outcomes will eventuate.