Sanaa 'paralysed' in rebel-alliance clashes

The 'marriage of convenience' between ex-president Saleh and Houthis appears to be over

epa06365138 A Houthi follower holds up his gun at a square a day after fighting broke out between Houthi rebels and the forces loyal to Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sana’a, Yemen, 03 December 2017. Yemen's rebel alliance continued to come apart as fighting took place on 02 December between the Houthis and their onetime allies, the forces loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At least 40 people were killed, including civilians, and dozens were wounded in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
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The alliance between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, is fast unravelling amid increasing violence as clashes intensified in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa and the northern provinces.

Both territories have been under the control of Houthi fighters and Saleh loyalists for two years but have now become the arena for a bitter internal war within a war which has already killed about 100 people in five days, injured many more and terrorised the civilian population caught in the middle.

Fighting broke out over the weekend when the former Yemeni president split from the Houthis — an alliance that has often been termed a marriage of convenience - and offered to talk peace with his adversaries, the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the UAE.

The conflict spilled over Yemen's borders as the Houthis claimed they had fired a cruise missile at the UAE’s nuclear power plant on Sunday.

The UAE denied there had been any such attack and a source from the Barakah power plant — which is set to begin operating in 2018 — said there were no signs of an attack to the structure located next to Ruwais, 280 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi.

The National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) sought to assure the populace that there was no danger.

"The UAE's air defence system is capable of dealing with any threat of any kind. The Barakah nuclear power plant has all the necessary safety and security measures in place to avert crises," said the NCEMA statement.


Watch — War in Yemen: Beginning of the end?


It was not the first time the Houthis claimed they had fired a missile at the UAE. The last occasion was in August. The UAE issued firm denials then, too.

Reports of the missile attack come after the Saudi-led coalition, which has been fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, bombed Houthi positions in Sanaa. Though there is no official confirmation of developments in the capital, reports from witnesses say forces loyal to Mr Saleh took control of the ministry of defence, the ministry of finance and other key government buildings only to lose it again after a Houthi counter-offensive on Sunday morning.

“The two sides are fighting guerrilla-style and  clashes are erupting in different parts of the south of Sanaa,” said Adnan Al Batool, who lives in Bab Al Yemen. “Many injured Houthi fighters were transported to Thawra Hospital in the morning. One man was already dead by the time he arrived.”

Healthcare facilities managed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) were caught up in the fighting. A spokesman for the NGO  told The National that none of their Yemeni staff had been injured but said they could not work because they felt too threatened.

"The capital is paralysed. It is vital that those injured in the fighting are able to safely access medical care, and that medical personnel can carry out their work without fear of attack," MSF said.

"It is too early to say what this fight means for potentially ending to the war. Certainly it is a turning point, but to where is not clear," said April Longley Alley, a project director at International Crisis Group.

If Mr Saleh, the coalition and Yemen's President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi are considering an alliance against the Houthis — and by extension their Iranian backers  — the fighting is likely to get worse, she added.

"This could be a very bloody fight. The outcome depends on a number of intertwined factors including the position of the tribes around the city, the ability of the Republican Guards to regroup under Saleh's leadership," she said.

As well as retaking the finance and defence ministries, the Houthis also stormed the headquarters of Yemen Today TV, which is owned by Mr Saleh. The indications on Sunday evening were that they were re-grouping in Sanaa to take back control from Saleh loyalists. One resident said Saleh loyalists held areas around  Algeria Street and Sakher Street — both main thoroughfares —  while Bab Al Yemen and Al Tahreer districts were in Houthi hands.


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Meanwhile residents in the capital were living in fear of all-out war breaking out at any moment, said Essam, a doctor who declined to give his last name.

“Public establishments are closed and transportation is suspended. The city is paralysed,” he said.

The fighting calmed late in the day as both sides appeared to take a break, as if by mutual agreement. But residents in other parts of the city reported Houthi deployment with explosions and gunfire.

The first signs of  a rift between Saleh forces emerged in August. Ex-president Saleh fell out with rebel leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi, leading to clashes on the streets of Sanaa and the first overtures by Mr Saleh towards the Arab coalition and a possible peace deal.

The Houthis responded by trying to lay siege to Mr Saleh and his son in their respective homes. Colonel Khaled Al Radi, a senior member of Mr Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, was killed only days after the party celebrated its 35th anniversary.

Mr Saleh has famously likened Yemeni politics to "dancing on the heads of snakes, and his shifting alliances have made Riyadh and Abu Dhabi wary of him. During his 34 years in power, he had cracked down on the Shiite Houthis. After a rocket attack on the presidential compound in 2011 he spent months in Saudi Arabia recovering and agreed to step down.

But on his return he struck a deal with the very rebels he had once fought, leading to political instability which in turn provoked civil war and one of the worst humanitarian disasters of recent times.

Until last week, Mr Saleh had been looking to bolster his position in the country by claiming he was willing to strike a “strategic alliance with Iran” — Saudi Arabia’s regional arch rival.

Yemen descended into violence in late 2014 when the Houthis, a group hailing from the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, marched on Sanaa and seized control of the government. The Saudi-led coalition, in which the UAE plays a key role, intervened to help reinstate order.

The war that ensued has killed more than 10,000 people since 2015, displaced more than two million, caused a cholera epidemic infecting nearly one million people and brought the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.