Yemen's President Said to Leave the Country as Rebels Advance

Yemeni Shiite rebels pushed to capture the stronghold of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, in what would be a major blow to Saudi Arabia, the regional power which had vowed to take action to protect its ally.

Clashes erupted between Houthi forces and militias loyal to Hadi at the international airport in the southern city of Aden, amid reports that the president may have fled the country. Al-Masdar news website said the airport had fallen to the Houthis.

The Shiite rebel fighters have pressed their offensive deep into the shrinking territory in the country’s south held by Hadi and his allies. The Associated Press reported that Hadi had left the country by sea under heavy security. A top Hadi aide, Mohammed Hadi, said in a text message that the president was still in Aden.

Mohammed Aidha, a member of the Popular Committees, a militia loyal to Hadi, said the rebels used tanks in the fighting at the airport, which came after the Houthis had seized a major military base on the city’s outskirts. The Houthis have formed an alliance with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power after an uprising in 2011.

Yemen is emerging as the latest ground for a proxy confrontation between Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and Iran, where officials have expressed support for the Houthi group. The prospect of a prolonged conflict increases the risk that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries may be drawn into the fighting though political analysts question whether they are willing to intervene.

Shares Plunge

Saudi Arabia’s benchmark Tadawul All Share Index dropped 5 percent, the most since Dec. 16.

“The broad story is the GCC doesn’t have many cards to play,” Steffen Hertog, a Gulf expert and associate professor of comparative politics at London School of Economics, said by phone Wednesday. “They don’t have any local partners. They have Hadi but if he’s thrown out, there’s nothing they can do to bring him back.”

The Hadi government is urging allies “to send their fighter jets, their navies and ground forces if necessary” to stop the advance of the pro-Iranian Houthi militants, Riad Yaseen, Hadi’s foreign minister, said in an interview with Al Arabiya television before the attack on Aden began. He said the Houthis would soon seek to consolidate their power with the help of Shiite-ruled Iran.

The streets of Aden are almost deserted, resident Nabil al-Quaiti said by phone, with all shops closed. Troops opened fire as local people approached a city arsenal demanding weapons to defend themselves, he said.

UN Request

Hadi asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a resolution allowing “all willing countries” to take any necessary measures, including military action, to stop the Houthis’ aggression.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this week that GCC countries will take “necessary measures to protect the region” from the Houthis. The six-nation GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

Northern Bases

The Houthis marched from their northern base to capture the capital, Sana’a, last year. The group then moved to strengthen ties with Iran, sending a delegation this month to Tehran to discuss economic cooperation and starting direct flights with the Iranian capital.

The Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, say they operate independently of Iran and represent only their group’s interests. U.S. officials have said that Iran’s role in Yemen is a concern.

The rebels want “to take over Aden to end what’s left of President Hadi’s legitimacy and to make their coup an undisputed reality on the ground,” said Fouad Mossad, an Aden-based analyst, by phone. “Even if the city falls, it will not be safe because there is large support for Hadi among the tribes here.”

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