SANAA, Yemen (AP) — President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled Yemen by sea Wednesday as Shiite rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on his head, officials said.
The departure of the close U.S. ally and the imminent fall of the southern port of Aden pushed Yemen further toward a violent collapse. It also threatened to turn the impoverished but strategic country into another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.
On Wednesday, Saudi ambassador to the United States Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said his country had begun airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Jubeir declined to say whether the Saudi campaign involved U.S. intelligence assistance.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, are tools for Iran to seize control ofYemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.
The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.
In fighting in Lahj, they captured Hadi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into the nearby al-Annad base, which the U.S. military had left.
The Houthis are backed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.
Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.
With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden after 3:30 p.m. on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told The Associated Press. The officials would not specify his destination.
Saleh said in a speech two weeks ago that Hadi might head for the African country of Djibouti across the gulf, just as leaders of southern Yemen fled .
Hadi is scheduled to attend an Arab summit this weekend in Cairo, where Arab allies are to discuss forming a joint Arab force that could pave the way for military intervention against the Houthis.
The officials said Hadi had been preparing for the move since Sunday, when rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi vowed in a fiery speech that his forces will keep advancing south, referring to Hadi as a “puppet” of international powers.
Shortly after Hadi fled his palace in Aden, warplanes targeted presidential forces guarding it. No casualties were reported. By midday, Aden’s airport fell into hands of forces loyal to Saleh based in the city after intense clashes with pro-Hadi militias.
Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly $100,000 for Hadi’s capture.
The Houthis still face multiple opponents. Sunni tribesmen and local militias are fighting them in many places around Yemen, and the rebels have little support in the south.
Some military units remain loyal to Hadi, although they are severely weakened. Alarmingly, al-Qaida militants have emerged as a powerful force against the rebels, and there are signs of a presence of the even more extremist Islamic State group. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against the Houthis in Sanaa that killed 137 people.
AQAP is considered the terrorist group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S. bound airlines, although none exploded. U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against AQAP are seriously hampered, with the U.S. Embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated.
Although the Houthis are avowed enemies of al-Qaida, they can’t project power against the militants the way the Hadi government could with U.S. support. The deeply anti-American rebels have rejected Washington’s overtures, officials say.
Hadi’s exit is a humiliating reversal, coming in large part at the hands of Saleh, the man he replaced in 2012 under a deal that allowed the former leader to remain free.
The atmosphere in Aden was tense, with most schools, government offices, shops and restaurants closed. In the few cafes still open, men watched the news on TV. Looters went through two abandoned army camps, taking weapons and ammunition.
Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, told the rebel-controlled Al-Masirah news channel that their forces were not aiming to occupy the south.
Foreign Minister Riad Yassin told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV he officially requested the Arab League send a military force to intervene against the Houthis.
Depicting them as a proxy of Shiite Iran, he warned of an Iranian “takeover” of Yemen.
On Tuesday, Hadi asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention “to protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression” in Aden and the rest of the south. He said he also asked members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League for immediate help.
Saudi Arabia warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.” Saudi Arabia, which provided Yemen with an economic lifeline, has cut most of its aid after the Houthis’ takeover.
The turmoil threatened a humanitarian disaster according to international aid organizations. In January, Oxfam said that half of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian aid, and nearly 1 million children are malnourished.
The Houthis and Saleh’s forces also face internal enemies. Shiites make up around 30 percent of the population, mostly in the north. Saleh has never been popular in the south, making it a likely center for resistance.
Protests were held Tuesday against the Houthis in the city of Taiz after the rebels took over there. The rebels opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least six.
In the north, the Houthis have so far been unable to take Marib province, housing Yemen’s oil and gas facilities. They face powerful resistance there from Sunni tribesmen, some armed by Saudi Arabia. Other southern provinces such as Abyan and Shabwa are known as al-Qaida strongholds, and the rebels will face stiff resistance from tribes allied with the militant group.
Last week’s suicide bombings against mosques in Sanaa underscored the danger from militants, particularly if the presence of the Islamic State group is established. In Sanaa, dozens of coffins were lined up for a mass funeral Wednesday.
“In the very short-term, Houthis’ next move will determine their next top enemy,” said Yemeni writer Samy Ghalib. “If they play politics, their enemies will be the politicians. If they continue the use of force, their foes would be the radical groups including al-Qaida.”
The Saleh-Houthi alliance will likely hold for the time being, he said, adding that international intervention might only strengthen it.
“The zero-sum game which Houthis and Saleh started is not over yet. … An international intervention without a political vision, would only spark a civil war,” he said.