Yemen crisis: Houthi fighters advance toward president's stronghold

There were conflicting reports of whether President Hadi had fled his temporary capital in Aden after Shiite Houthi fighters took over Yemen's largest airbase, just 35 miles away.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Houthi fighters ride a patrol truck in Sanaa, Yemen, March 25, 2015. Houthi forces in Yemen backed by allied army units seized a key air base on Wednesday and appeared poised to capture the southern port of Aden from defenders loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, local residents said.

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Houthi rebels reportedly took over Yemen’s largest airbase Wednesday, located just 35 miles from the port city of Aden, where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi set up a temporary capital last month. The president reportedly fled the city Wednesday, raising fears of an ever-quickening slide toward civil war.

Witnesses in Aden told The Associated Press they saw a convoy of presidential cars leaving President Hadi’s palace Wednesday. Officials told the AP that Hadi was supervising the government response to the Houthi advance from a secret location, though other news outlets say Yemeni officials deny the claims Hadi has fled.

The Shiite Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, last fall, leading Hadi to briefly resign from the presidency in January and finally relocate to Aden in February, reports The Christian Science Monitor. Heavy fighting broke out last Thursday, resulting in a rapid southern advance by Houthi fighters. The rebels seized the country’s third-largest city, Taiz, over the weekend.

The fight between the government and Houthi rebels is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and some fear a fall toward civil war could mean a broader regional armed conflict. Iran has approved of the rise of Houthi fighters as a part of the “Islamic awakening” in the region, Reuters reports. And Saudi Arabia recently began moving military armor and artillery along its border with Yemen, according to a separate Reuters report.

“If the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region,” Saudi Arabia has warned.

On Tuesday, Hadi appealed to the United Nations’s Security Council to authorize military intervention to “protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression expected to occur at any hour from now” against the nation.

Houthi fighters are believed to be backed by fierce Hadi critic and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Wednesday Mr. Saleh warned against foreign involvement in Yemen, saying the nation would approach such a move “with all its strength.”

According to The Monitor, the conflict appears primed to spread along sectarian lines.

Across the impoverished country, old grievances threaten to crystallize in new violence. Resentful of their marginalization in the political process and emboldened by the chaos, southerners are demanding full separation. In the oil-rich province of Mareb, tensions are rising between Houthis and local tribesmen.

While Yemenis generally don’t subscribe to the sectarian logic, experts warn the conflict will turn sectarian if it continues on the same trajectory. Saudi Arabia has long intervened in the internal affairs of its smaller neighbor and currently backs Hadi against the Houthis, who draw their support from Iran.

“It is important to remember that historically the conflict between the Houthis and the government was not of a sectarian nature, but what we are seeing is an increase in sectarian language on both sides that has given a sectarian dimension to the conflict,” says Belkis Wille, Yemen and Kuwait researcher for Human Rights Watch. 

“The fragmentation of the state has meant that individual groups have to rely on themselves to protect their political interests, encouraging each political group to consolidate its own military might,” she adds.

There’s also concern over Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula gaining strength amid Yemen’s internal struggles. The airbase that was allegedly seized by Houthi militants Wednesday had been used by the US to launch drone attacks against the terrorist group, which holds territory in eastern Yemen. US and British soldiers were recently evacuated from the base, though the US said drone strikes will continue.

There’s also evidence of the Islamic State’s involvement in Yemen, with the terrorist group claiming responsibility for deadly suicide attacks on mosques last week in Sanaa.

“The emergence of IS in Yemen may fuel a broader sectarian conflict,” Alexis Knutsen, Yemen analyst for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats project in Washington, told The Monitor. “The conflict has reached a tipping point, and the international community needs to get both the al Houthis and Hadi to the negotiating table before the situation spirals out of control."

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