Saudis bombard Yemeni capital after death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh drives civil war into unpredictable new phase
Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades until an Arab spring uprising forced him to step down in 2012
Heavy air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition pounded Yemen’s capital overnight, targeting Sanaa’s densely populated neighbourhoods in apparent retaliation for the killing of the former Yemeni president by the country’s Shiite rebels, residents said.
The body of Ali Abdullah Saleh, which had appeared in a video by the militias with a gaping head wound, was taken to the city’s military rebel-controlled hospital but it was not immediately clear if the rebels would allow Saleh’s family to hold a funeral later in the day.
The gruesome images from the previous day sent shock waves among Saleh’s followers – a grisly end recalling that of his contemporary, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011.
Saleh’s son Salah said on Facebook on Tuesday that he won’t receive condolences for his father’s death until “after avenging the blood” of the long-time strongman. Salah also urged his father’s followers to fight their former allies, the Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
From Cairo, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit issued a statement on Tuesday denouncing Saleh’s “assassination” at the hands of “criminal militias,” and warned Yemen’s situation could explode further and worsen humanitarian crisis. The League spokesman, Mahmoud Afifi, quoted Aboul-Gheit as saying the international community should label the Houthis a “terrorist” organisation.
“All means should be tackled for the Yemeni people to get rid of this black nightmare,” he said.
Saleh’s slaying likely gives the rebels the upper hand in the days-long fighting for Sanaa while also shattering hopes by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government that the former president’s recent split with the Houthis would have weakened them.
That would give Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Saudi-led coalition backing it and waging war on the Houthis a chance for a turning point in the stalemated conflict that has brought humanitarian disaster.
But with Saleh’s forces seemingly in disarray, it was not immediately clear if the Saudi-led coalition will be able to turn the split to its advantage in the war. Many Sanaa residents remained hunkered down in their homes, fearing the rebels and the Saudi air strikes, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fears for their safety.
Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades until an Arab spring uprising forced him to step down in 2012. He later allied with the Houthi rebels hoping to exploit their strength to return to power. That helped propel Yemen into the ruinous civil war that has spread hunger and disease among its 28 million people.
Houthi officials said their fighters killed Saleh as he tried to flee the capital for his nearby hometown of Sanhan. The Houthis’ top leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, said Saleh paid the price for his “treason,” accusing him of betraying their alliance to side with the Saudi-led coalition.
Houthi and Saleh-loyalist forces have been fighting in Sanaa since late last week. The Saudi-led coalition has been hitting Houthi positions with air strikes, hoping that having Saleh on its side after his split with the rebels could provide a foothold in the capital for the forces of the Saudi-backed president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
From the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he has been in self-imposed exile for most of the war, Hadi tried on Monday to rally Saleh’s allies to keep up the fight against the Houthis.
When Saleh left power, he stayed in the country and kept the loyalty of many military commanders, splitting the armed forces between himself and Hadi. Saleh’s forces were key to helping the Houthis overrun Sanaa in 2014 and then much of the north and centre of the country.
But over the past year, the Houthis appear to have undermined Saleh, wooing away some of his commanders, strengthening their own fighters and reducing their need for him. It appears that pushed Saleh into flirting with the coalition, ultimately leading to the breakdown of the alliance with the Houthis and the recent outbreak of clashes.
The fighting has brought new suffering to Sanaa’s residents; many said the night was shattered by the sounds of gunfire and children screaming.
Witnesses said the bodies of slain civilians and fighters littered the streets as no ambulances were able to reach the area.