SHIITE rebels have seized Yemen’s third largest city of Taiz and a vital airport, sending the troubled Middle Eastern nation into chaos as the United States evacuates its citizens and the United Nations calls for an emergency session.
The Security Council was to meet this morning after President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi called for “urgent intervention” amid mounting unrest, including suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State group that killed 142 people in the capital Sanaa late last week.
Impoverished but strategic Yemen has descended into chaos in recent months, with the Shi’ite militia, known as Huthis, seizing control of Sanaa and forcing Hadi to flee to the main southern city of Aden.
Yemen has been the scene of intensive US drone strikes for about a decade, with key jihadist leadership officials among the targets. The long term program appears to have failed.
The Arabian Peninsula country is divided between a north controlled by the Huthis, who are allegedly backed by Iran, and a south dominated by Hadi’s allies.
The Shiite rebels swept into Sanaa in September and now control it and nine of the country’s 21 provinces.
REBELS FIRE ON PROTESTERS
The thousands who took to the streets of the city of Taiz in protest of the weekend’s armed takeover but were met with a violent response.
One person was killed and four wounded when the rebels, known as Houthis, fired on the crowd, security officials said. A few dozen were choked by teargas.
If the rebels hold onto the city, the capital of Yemen’s most populous province, it would be a major blow to embattled President Hadi, who established a base in the southern city of Aden just 140 kilometres away after fleeing the rebel-held capital last month.
The seizure comes a day after the rebels called for a general mobilisation against forces loyal to Hadi, after he gave a defiant speech challenging the Houthis in his first public address since leaving Sanaa.
KEY AIRPORT SEIZED
Yesterday the Huthis and their allies seized the airport in Taez, which is just 180 kilometres north of Aden on the road to Sanaa and seen as a strategic entry point to Hadi’s refuge.
Security sources said some 300 men, including Huthi fighters dressed in military uniforms and allied forces, had deployed at the airport and reinforcements were arriving from Sanaa by air and land.
The forces allied with the Huthis included members of the former central security force, a unit seen as loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Brigadier Gen. Hamoud al-Harathi, the commander of special forces units based in Taiz, rejected Hadi’s legitimacy as president. His men have deployed to a number of positions around Taiz and on the road leading to Aden, security officials and eyewitnesses said.
DEPOSED LEADER RETURNS
Saleh was forced from power in early 2012 after a year-long popular uprising and has been accused of working with the Huthis to restore his influence.
Security sources said Huthi militiamen were also patrolling parts of Taez and had set up checkpoints in Raheda, some 80 kilometres south of the city on the road to Aden.
A military source said troops loyal to Hadi and southern paramilitary forces had meanwhile deployed in Lahj province north of Aden, in anticipation of a possible Huthi advance.
Huthi militiamen killed one protester in Taez when they opened fire to disperse thousands of people demanding that the rebels withdraw, activists said.
Elsewhere, six tribesmen were killed in Qania, in Marib province, in a clash with Huthis advancing towards the eastern province, a tribal source said. The source claimed that 30 militiamen were killed.
Hadi, backed by Western and Gulf states as Yemen’s legitimate ruler, has struggled to reassert his authority since escaping house arrest in Sanaa last month and fleeing to Aden.
In a letter to the Security Council, he said the Huthis and their allies “not only threaten peace in Yemen but regional and international peace and security”.
TERROR FIGHT CURTAILED
The turmoil has undermined Yemen’s ability to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the main target of the US drone program.
Yemen now faces the uprising of a purported affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings killing at least 137 people Friday.
A day earlier, US troops evacuated a southern air base crucial to the drone program after al-Qaeda militants seized a nearby city.
All these factors could push the Arab world’s most impoverished country, united only in the 1990s, back toward civil war.