Yemen crisis: Western-backed President in peril amid rumours of a bounty on his head

As Houthi rebels made further advances across Yemen yesterday, the fate of the Western-backed President remained unclear

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The country has been in chaos for many months, but any remaining semblance of order in Yemen collapsed yesterday as Houthi rebel forces drove the country’s President out of the compound in Aden where he had been sheltering since he fled the capital last year.

Last night the whereabouts of the Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi were unclear.

A spokesman for the rebels said he had fled the southern city and headed abroad by air, while the Associated Press, citing security and port officials, reported that Mr Hadi and his aides left Aden on two boats yesterday afternoon. Aides insisted that the President remained in the city, but said he had been forced into moving to an undisclosed location.

Unidentified jets were seen firing missiles at the area where his compound stands and last night there were reports that residents of Aden were looting the buildings Mr Hadi had abandoned. The US State Department said that America did not know his location.

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A Yemeni protester holds a placard reading 'For the sake of a secure country' in front of burning tires during an anti-Houthis protest in the central highland city of Taiz, Yemen, on Tuesday (EPA)

The Houthis, members of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, have been in effective control of the capital Sanaa for many months following an offensive against the city last September. After a period under house arrest Mr Hadi fled south to Aden from where he continued to attempt to govern part of his country.

Meanwhile, the country, the poorest in the Arab world, has become a melting pot of violence. Jostling for control have been the Houthis, Sunni tribes – some still loyal to the government, others aligned with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – and now Isis. In recent weeks the Houthi rebels have pushed towards Aden. Small teams of British and US military advisers were withdrawn from bases in the south last weekend as the unravelling of what remained of Yemen’s government became unstoppable. Yesterday, the rebels moved towards Aden, with fighting reported around its airport and a growing threat that the entire city would fall under their control.

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This push included taking al-Anad airbase, 35 miles from the city. Soldiers at Aden’s Jabal al-Hadeed barracks were forced to fire into the air to prevent residents from entering the base and arming themselves, witnesses said, suggesting that Mr Hadi’s control over the city was steadily fraying.

Houthi fighters and allied military units had advanced to Dar Saad, a village a half-hour’s drive from central Aden, as they moved towards the city, residents there said yesterday afternoon.

The fighters seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they moved closer to Aden. The bodies of fighters from both sides also reportedly littered the streets on the outskirts of al-Houta, the capital of Lahej province north of Aden, which has also seen recent fighting.

In Lahej, the rebels claimed to have captured Mr Hadi’s Defence Minister, Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and his top aide yesterday and to have transferred them to the capital, Sanaa. Yemen’s state TV, controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly $100,000 (£67,000) for Mr Hadi’s capture.

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Houthi rebels have been in effective control of Sanaa since last September. On Wednesday they were said to have made advances in Aden, home to the presidential compound (AP)

In Aden, heavy traffic clogged the roads as parents brought schoolchildren home and public sector employees obeyed orders to leave work. Eyewitnesses said pro-Hadi militiamen and tribal gunmen were out in force throughout the city, according to Reuters.

“The war is imminent and there is no escape from it,” said 21-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, standing outside a security compound in Aden’s Khor Maksar district, where hundreds of young men have been signing up to fight the advancing Shia fighters. “And we are ready for it,” he said.

While violence has been a constant for residents of many Yemen’s cities and towns, the country’s neighbours and other interested parties are watching events closely. The closest ally of Mr Hadi and his government is the Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia, which was reported yesterday to have begun a build-up of heavy artillery on its border with Yemen – giving rise to the risk that it would enter the conflict against the Houthi rebels.

 

Saudi sources told Reuters yesterday that the build-up was purely defensive, while there were also reports that the build-up could be connected with military exercises. Either way, it would appear to be a warning to the Houthis of the Saudi strength. Saudi Arabia had warned earlier in the week that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region”. 

On the other side of the divide, the Houthis are believed to be backed by Shia Iran, the other big power in the region – although this has been denied both by the rebels and by Iran.

Any attempt to intercede by Saudi Arabia would probably bring an escalating response from Iran.

That has not stopped the Yemeni government from trying to rally support. Mr Hadi is scheduled to attend an Arab summit in Egypt at the weekend, where Arab allies are due to discuss the formation of a joint Arab force that could pave the way for military intervention against the Houthis.

On Tuesday Mr Hadi asked the UN Security Council to authorise a military intervention “to protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression” in Aden and the rest of the south. In his letter, he said he has also asked members of the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council and the Arab League for immediate help. The Arab League will discuss such a proposal today.

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