Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Monday, 23 January 2012

Beleaguered Yemen's descent into chaos

By Stephen Sackur
Aden, Yemen

Refugees at Bir Ahmed middle school in Aden
Schools in Aden have become locations where displaced Yemeni families from the Abyan region receive donated food

Next month, Yemen is supposed to be holding a presidential election which could mark the final departure from power of the country's long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh. But now the poll looks in doubt as the security situation deteriorates in this strategically vital, highly volatile corner of the Arab World.

When the morning bell sounds inside the Bir Ahmed middle school in Aden no-one cares nor moves.

The classrooms are full, not with students but with listless refugees: families from the jagged hill country of south-eastern Yemen, who have laid bedding where the desks used to be and hung sheets from the walls to hide their women folk from strangers' prying eyes.

Mansour al-Arabi has been in this school for eight months, along with his wife Dowla and seven children.

Go any further and we cannot protect you. You will be killed

This proud farmer of sheep, apricots and sesame oil, is now dependent for survival on a monthly food handout from the United Nations.

Mr Arabi's misfortune was to live close to the town of Zinjibar, provincial capital of Yemen's Abyan province.

Heavy artillery

Last May, it was overrun by fighters from Ansar al-Sharia - widely seen as a front for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - perhaps the most potent offshoot of the global jihadi network.

Many residents fled; those that did not found their homes under attack as the Yemeni military pounded the rebels with airstrikes and heavy artillery.

"When we left we had to step over the bodies of the dead on the road," Dowla al-Arabi told me. "We are desperate to go home, but we can't."

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More than 160,000 civilians have been forced to flee as the al-Qaeda-backed insurgency has spread.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, riddled with corruption and lacking any semblance of a coherent national government, is disintegrating.

Tens of thousands of destitute refugees have flooded into Aden. The port city's schools have been commandeered to provide them with shelter.

And that has pleased neither the refugees - who claim they are desperately short of food and water - nor the city's resident population.

"How much longer do we have to put up with this?" the headmistress of Bir Ahmed school yelled at me.

"We want our building back. And if we don't get it, there is going to be an explosion here".

Aden, a half-forgotten remnant of Britain's imperial past, clings to the rim of an ancient volcano jutting into the Arabian Sea.

These days it feels beleaguered, angry and increasingly lawless.

During my recent stay, two policemen were gunned down close to the port and four protesters were killed at a demonstration demanding secession for South Yemen.

When I went to see a senior UN official in his capacious compound - it housed the British Embassy during the days when South Yemen was an independent Marxist republic - I found him supervising the construction of blast walls around the front entrance.

'Turn around'

He pointed toward the blue waters of the Gulf of Aden and said: "Three days by boat and you've reached the Somali coast. Yemen is Somalia in the making".

I drove east out of Aden on the main route towards Zinjibar to see just how far the Sanaa government's writ now runs.

Within 15km (9 miles) I was stopped at a military checkpoint.

"You must turn around," the local commander told me.

Calling for independence for South Yemen
Thousands of Yemenis rallied for secession in Aden in November 2011

"Go any further and we cannot protect you. You will be killed'.

A short time later, word came through of another town taken by the jihadists - this time just 160km (100 miles) from the capital Sanaa.

Many in the south believe the al-Qaeda threat has been tacitly encouraged by the country's long-time ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Mr Saleh, now in the US for medical treatment, has relinquished power after months of popular protest inspired by the Arab Spring, but there are hints that presidential elections may have to be postponed as the security situation deteriorates.

The Sanaa government has consistently used the spectre of al-Qaeda to drum up support from the West - many Yemenis believe that game is still being played.

And if it is, that spells danger not just for Yemen but the wider Arabian Peninsula.

Aden's battered harbour looks out on some of the most strategically important shipping lanes in the world.

That is why a British expeditionary force first occupied this rocky outpost 173 years ago.

It is why Western warships still patrol the waters off Yemen's coast.

And why America's most sophisticated surveillance equipment is trained on this southernmost corner of the Arab world.

In the coming months, the fear is they will be watching, powerless, as Yemen sinks deeper into chaos.

HARDtalk on the Road in Yemen will be broadcast on the BBC News Channel and on BBC World News on Tuesday 23, January.



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