Yemen leader orders advance on capital after rebel pact collapses

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Sanaa (AFP)

Yemen's president has ordered his forces to retake control of Sanaa, a presidential source said Monday, after the rebel alliance that forced his government from the capital collapsed amid heavy fighting.

Witnesses reported fresh clashes between forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels, who together seized control of Sanaa from the internationally recognised government three years ago.

Their alliance has unravelled over the last week, with fierce battles breaking out across the capital, accusations of betrayal and Saleh reaching out to the Saudi-led coalition battling the insurgents.

President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, whose government operates from the southern city of Aden, moved to take advantage of the chaos on Monday.

"The president has ordered Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is in Marib (east of Sanaa), to activate military units and advance towards the capital," an official in the presidency told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The government also reached out to Saleh and his supporters with an offer of amnesty.

"The president will soon announce a general amnesty for all those who collaborated with the Huthis in recent months and who have retracted that allegiance," Prime Minister Ahmad Obaid bin Daghr said.

"We will stand with everyone who stands against the Huthis... in the face of the Iranian threat," he said.

The Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government accuse Iran of arming the Huthis, which Iran denies.

The Saleh-Huthi alliance has been fraught since its inception in 2014, when the two ended decades of enmity and joined ranks to capture Sanaa from Hadi's government.

Saudi Arabia, accusing arch-rival Iran of backing the rebels, intervened in the Yemen war on behalf of the government the following year.

A Saudi-led military coalition has been hitting Sanaa with air strikes for months. A fresh wave on Monday targeted areas near Sanaa International Airport and the interior ministry, both under Huthi control, according to residents and a source in the airport.

The coalition on Monday warned Yemeni civilians to avoid rebel areas.

- Fears for civilians -

Residents near the airport said multiple air raids had shaken their homes late Sunday night and in the early hours of Monday.

An airport source said rebel bases near the location appeared to have been targeted, but the airport itself had not been bombed.

Residents reported that the fighting, which erupted Wednesday, had spread outside the capital.

Tribal sources in Saleh's hometown Sanhan, south of Sanaa, on Monday reported intense overnight fighting between the Huthis and Saleh loyalists.

The Huthis on Monday also claimed they were closing in on key members of Saleh's party.

Witnesses said clashes had erupted around the residence of Tarek Saleh, a nephew of the former president and a leader with his forces.

The clashes in the capital had killed some 60 people as of Sunday. There was no immediate information available Monday on fresh casualties.

Since 2014, Sanaa has been jointly controlled by Saleh and the Huthis, who set up their own government there after ousting Hadi's administration, and for two years fought the Saudi-led coalition together.

Saleh on Saturday announced he was open to talks with Saudi Arabia and its allies on condition they ended their crippling blockade on Yemen's ports and airports.

That dealt a serious blow to his already fragile alliance with rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi.

The Saleh-Huthi split sparked fears of a new front in the Yemen war, which has already claimed more than 8,750 lives since the Saudi-led coalition joined the war.

The conflict has pushed Yemen to the brink of mass starvation and triggered what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

International aid groups warned on Monday they were losing the ability to reach civilians in the Yemeni capital.

"Ambulances and medical teams can't access injured, people can't buy food and other supplies," UNICEF's Rajat Madhok said on Twitter.

"Aid workers can't travel and implement critical life-saving programmes. This latest violence couldn't come at a worse time."