SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Veteran former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in a roadside attack on Monday after switching sides in Yemen’s civil war, abandoning his Iran-aligned Houthi allies in favor of a Saudi-led coalition, foes and supporters said.
Analysts said Saleh’s death would be a huge moral boost for the Houthis and a serious blow to the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the conflict to try to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Any hope within the coalition that Saleh could have been bought off to help turn the tables against the Houthis after a protracted stalemate, in which a Saudi-led blockade and internal fighting have exposed millions to hunger and an epidemic, has been dashed.
The coalition will either have to continue waging a grinding war, possibly trying big offensives against Houthi-held areas at the risk of high civilian casualties, or offer compromises to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.
Sources in the Houthi militia said its fighters had stopped Saleh’s armored vehicle with an RPG rocket south of the embattled capital Sanaa and then shot him dead. Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party, in a statement on its website, mourned its leader.
Footage circulated on social media showing his bloodied body lolling in a red blanket and being loaded into a pickup truck, just days after he tore up his alliance with the Houthis following nearly three years in which they had jointly battled the Saudi-led coalition.
In a televised speech on Monday, Houthi leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi hailed Saleh’s death as a victory against the Saudi-led bloc, congratulating Yemenis “on this historic, exceptional and great day in which the conspiracy of betrayal and treason failed, this black day for the forces of the aggression”.
He said the Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shi‘ite Islam, would maintain Yemen’s republican system and not pursue a vendetta against Saleh’s party.
Supporters of the Houthis drove through Sanaa’s streets blasting celebratory war songs.
Abdul-Malek also hailed a missile launch announced by the group toward the United Arab Emirates this week as a message to its enemies, advising against foreign investment in the UAE and Saudi Arabia as their campaign in Yemen continues.
The Houthi group’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdul-Salem, in remarks to Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV, accused the UAE of helping Saleh switch sides, and said the security establishment would publish documents of his contacts with the Saudi-led coalition.
Saleh, 75, had said on Saturday that he was ready for a “new page” in ties with the coalition and called the Houthis a “coup militia”.
Warfare between the erstwhile allies has rocked densely populated Sanaa for days, with Houthi fighters seizing control of much of the capital and on Monday blowing up Saleh’s house while coalition jets bombed their own positions.
The United Nations said roads were blocked and tanks deployed on many streets, trapping civilians and halting delivery of vital aid including fuel to supply clean water.
A Houthi militant reacts as he sits on a tank after the death of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Residents reported fresh air strikes on a compound that had been used by the Houthi-led government for the first time since the war began in 2015.
The United Nations, which had appealed for a humanitarian pause on Tuesday, said aid flights in and out of Sanaa had been suspended. New fighting had also flared in other governorates such as Hajjah, it added.
In Washington, the United States called on all sides in Yemen to re-energize political negotiations to end the war, according to a Trump administration official.
Hadi, in a speech carried live on Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV, called for a new chapter in the battle against the Houthis after Saleh’s death. “I call upon ... the Yemeni people in all provinces still suffering under this criminal and terrorist (Houthi) militia to rise in its face ... and cast it out.”
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