Yemen rebel alliance unravels with Sanaa street clashes

 03 Dec 2017 - 15:11

Yemen rebel alliance unravels with Sanaa street clashes
Huthi fighters patrol a street in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 3, 2017, during clashes with supporters of Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS

By AHMED AL-HAJ | Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen: Yemen's rebel alliance appeared to completely unravel on Sunday, the fifth day of clashes in the capital, Sanaa, where the Shiite rebels are facing off with former president's fighters in deadly street fighting that has forced residents to hunker indoors.

Clashes between fighters loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iran-allied rebels known as Houthis first erupted last week. The two were allies in the war against a Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore Yemen's internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power and dislodge the rebel alliance from Sanaa.

Meanwhile, Hadi, who is in Saudi Arabia in self-imposed exile, appeared to extend an offer of reconciliation to his predecessor, Saleh. In a statement from Riyadh, Hadi said his side will support "any party confronting Houthi terrorist gangs."

The offer followed a televised statement Saturday by Saleh in which he announced that he and his party, the People's General Congress, were open to dialogue and willing to turn a "new page" in dealings with the Saudi-led coalition.

Apparently confirming his break with the Shite Houthis and aligning himself with Saudi Arabia, Saleh told the Kuwait al-Rai daily that "the era of the militias is over and there is no coexistence after today between a state and a quasi-state."

"Our natural orbit as Yemenis, is the Gulf orbit," he added, referring to Gulf Arab states. "Whatever differences we have with the Gulf countries, we will cooperate and agree."

If Saleh and his fighters switch sides and join the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi's loyalists, the Houthis would become completely isolated.

Relations between the Houthis and Saleh's forces deteriorated over the past week amid accusations from the rebels that Saleh was opening a back channel with the coalition, specifically the United Arab Emirates, a coalition member, to turn against the Houthis.

Deif Allah al-Shami, a top Houthi politician told The Associated Press that Saleh — by his statements and action on the ground — has de facto joined the Saudi-led coalition.

But al-Shami said this also spelled the end of Saleh, insisting that Houthis remain firmly in control.

"Saleh is over, this card is over," he said. "He is now part of the coalition and the aggression."

Saleh's family members, including son Ahmed, who was once groomed to succeed his father and who led the powerful Republican Guards, have been in self-exile in the UAE since Saleh stepped down in the aftermath of the mass uprising against his rule that was part of the 2011 Arab Spring.

According to Sanaa medical officials, nearly 75 people from both sides were killed and wounded in Sanaa's clashes. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, did not provide a breakdown for the casualties.

The Sanaa street fighting seems to have split the capital in two parts, with the northern part under the Houthis and the southern under Saleh's fighters.

Both sides have set up checkpoints, placed snipers on rooftops and sealed off entrances to the city, which slowed down street movement and traffic. Bombings and sporadic barrage of gunfire rocked the southern part of Sanaa on Sunday.

Many of the state institutions — including the airport, the TV building and the official news agency — remain under the control of the Houthis, despite some earlier reports that Saleh's forces had taken over.

A southern Sanaa district that houses the residential compound of Saleh and his family was engulfed in intense clashes.

Saudi-run TV networks aired footage from Sanaa showing protesters tearing down posters in support of the Houthis and chanting against the rebels who have held the city and most of the country's north for the past two years.