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President Hadi flees Yemen amid Houthi rebel advance

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President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled the country, Yemeni security officials said Wednesday, the latest sign that Yemen is on a descent into chaos after Shiite Houthi rebels took over much of the capital in recent months.


Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has left the country on a boat from the southern port of Aden, where he had taken refuge after the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa was overrun by Shiite Houthi rebels earlier this year, Yemeni security officials said on Wednesday.

In February the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the rebels relinquish control of the government.

Driven from the capital after the rebels besieged his palace and dissolved parliament, forcing him to resign, Hadi’s calls for an international no-fly zone and for UN help went unheeded. On the ground this week, the rebels had been advancing toward his refuge in the port city of Aden.

Three years ago, US officials hailed Hadi’s ascension to power in a US-brokered deal that ended the longtime rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh during the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. Just a few months ago, US President Barack Obama called Yemen a counterterrorism success story, even as the CIA warned that the Iranian-backed Houthis were growing restive in the north of the country.

US officials now acknowledge that their efforts against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, have been seriously undermined. US authorities consider AQAP to be the terrorist group that poses the most danger to the West, in part because it successfully placed three bombs on US-bound airlines, although none of them exploded. The gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January claimed to be acting in the name of al Qaeda in Yemen.

The American embassy closed and the last US troops were evacuated from the country over the weekend. Although the Houthis are avowed enemies of al Qaeda, they cannot out-gun the militants the way the Hadi government could with US support, officials say. The deeply anti-American Houthis have so far rejected US overtures, officials say.

Sectarian proxy war?

The hasty departure of the US-backed president leaves the country open to what could be a destabilising proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

The latest developments in Yemen have worrisome implications for a Middle East already wracked by burgeoning Sunni-Shia conflict, analysts say. Saudi Arabia bolstered its troop presence along its border with Yemen this week. Saudi officials are deeply disturbed by the rise of the Houthis, who are widely seen as having links to Iran. US officials have said that Iran provides the Houthis with weapons and other support.

“This is all about Sunni versus Shia, Saudi versus Iran,” said Michael Lewis, professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law and a former Navy fighter pilot who watches Yemen closely. The US “can’t be a disinterested observer”, he said. “Nobody’s going to buy that. What we needed to do was pick a side.”

But Washington made no move to protect the Hadi government as the Houthis advanced.

Asked whether the US military had considered trying to rescue Hadi, a senior American official who declined to be named told AP: “The tinderbox in Yemen is most complicated because of the geopolitics at stake. The US, Saudis, Iranians, Houthis, Yemenis, AQAP, ISIL (the Islamic State group), and [al Qaeda] have equities in the situation and factor into any decision the US makes or doesn’t make.”

US officials have stressed that the only US military goal in Yemen was to defeat al Qaeda, saying that they did not want to get involved in a Yemeni civil war.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)


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