Yemen rebel alliance unravels as strongman turns to Saudis

Sanaa (AFP) – The rebel alliance controlling Yemen’s capital appeared to crumble Saturday as a strongman opposed to the internationally recognised government reached out to a Saudi-led coalition fighting the insurgents.

The rift within rebel ranks erupted into violence in Sanaa this week, raising fears of a new front in a three-year war that has claimed thousands of lives and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.

Ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who joined forces with the Iran-backed Huthi rebels to seize the capital in 2014, said he was ready to talk to the Saudi-led coalition if it lifts a crippling blockade on Yemen.

His about-face sparked warnings of retribution by the Huthis, whose leader accused Saleh of “great treason”.

Dozens of fighters on both sides were killed in the clashes this week. Rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi confirmed at least 40 killed or injured. Security sources in Sanaa put the toll at more than 60.

The armed groups fought Saturday for key positions in the city, including ministries and the international airport, security sources and witnesses said.

Sanaa international airport is under a crippling blockade the coalition imposed last month after a Huthi missile was intercepted near Riyadh.

Sanaa streets were empty Saturday night as Yemenis stayed home, fearing renewed clashes. One resident described the city as a “ghost town”.

– Rebels denounce ‘coup’ –

For decades bitter enemies, Saleh and rebel chief Abdulmalik al-Huthi joined forces three years ago to drive President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government from Sanaa.

But their fragile alliance has shown signs of unravelling for months.

Saleh’s open overture to Riyadh came a day after talks with the Huthis failed to broker a truce.

“I call on our brothers in neighbouring countries… to stop their aggression and lift the blockade… and we will turn the page,” he said in a televised speech.

“We vow to our brothers and neighbours that, after a ceasefire is in place and the blockade is lifted … we will hold dialogue directly through the legitimate authority represented by our parliament.”

The Huthi chief said Saleh and the Saudi-led coalition had become “one front” after the former president’s “great treason”.

The Huthis’ political office accused Saleh of staging a “coup” against “an alliance he never believed in”, and warned that Saudi Arabia and its allies would “pay a heavy price in their own capitals”.

– ‘Iran-backed militias’ –

Yemen’s war has claimed more than 8,750 lives since the…

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