Thursday 13 December 2018

Ex-president of Yemen is shot dead by rebels in street battle

Houthi militants react as they gather next to a tank after the death of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: Reuters
Houthi militants react as they gather next to a tank after the death of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: Reuters

Raf Sanchez in Beirut

Yemen's former president was killed yesterday by Houthi rebels after he appeared to switch sides against his allies to join a Saudi-led military coalition.

Ali Abdullah Saleh held power for 33 years until he was ousted in 2011, but remained a central figure in the country.

Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photo: AP
Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photo: AP

He spent two years fighting alongside Iran-backed Houthis against the Saudi-backed government.

But the alliance between Mr Saleh and the Houthis collapsed last week and he began to make public overtures towards Saudi Arabia as his troops fought the Houthis in street battles in Sanaa, the rebel-held capital in Yemen.

The 75-year-old former leader was reportedly shot as he tried to flee the city. Pictures and video circulated online showed Houthi fighters joyfully parading his bloody corpse.

Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, said Mr Saleh had been killed for treason and warned the Saudi-led coalition it would not succeed in Yemen.

"Today is the day of the fall of the conspiracy of betrayal and treason. It's a dark day for the forces of the coalition," he said.

Mr Saleh's death is a blow for Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies, who had reportedly wooed him through his son in the hope of bringing an end to a war that had descended into a frustrating stalemate for Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince.

More than 10,000 people have died in the fighting, which has destroyed the country's infrastructure and left seven million people on the brink of starvation. Saudi Arabia has been criticised for killing civilians in airstrikes and for its tight blockade of the country. It accuses Iran of arming the Houthis and supplying rebels with missiles which they have fired into Saudi territory.

The Red Cross and other humanitarian groups said their operations in Sanaa had been paralysed by the fighting and by heavy Saudi bombardment against the Houthis.

Mr Saleh had been one of the Arab world's wiliest and longest-reigning dictators. He once described his three decades in power as like "dancing on the heads of snakes". He was among a group of young military officers who seized power in North Yemen in 1962 and he became the country's president in 1978. In 1990 North and South were reunited and Mr Saleh became ruler.

He was forced from power in 2011 after protests inspired by the Arab Spring and narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, his vice president, took over control. But when Houthi forces rose up against Mr Hadi in 2015, Mr Saleh and his loyalists joined them and seized control of much of North Yemen. Saudi Arabia then began air raids against the Houthis in support of Mr Hadi.

Tensions between Mr Saleh and the Houthis had been growing since the summer and in a speech on Saturday he denounced his one-time allies and said he was ready to "turn a new page" with Saudi Arabia and Mr Hadi.

His gamble backfired as Houthi forces overran his fighters in Sanaa over the weekend. He was reportedly trying to flee the city when his armoured vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Houthi fighters then allegedly shot him dead at the roadside.

Mr Hadi had appealed to Mr Saleh's followers to join him against the Houthis and said he was ordering an offensive against Sanaa. Residents of the city said the fighting appeared to be calming last night as news of Mr Saleh's death spread. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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