Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Huthi rebels on Monday as he fled heavy fighting in Sanaa after the collapse of his alliance with the Iran-backed insurgents.
Saleh, who ruled with an iron fist for three decades, had joined forces with the Shiite Huthi rebels in 2014 when they took control of large parts of the Arabian Peninsula country including the capital Sanaa.
But that alliance unravelled over the past week, with heavy fighting across the capital, and Saleh was shot dead by Huthi fighters after he fled the city.
Speaking later on television, President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, the leader of the internationally recognised government, called on Yemenis to unite against the Huthis.
“Let’s join hands to end the control of these.. criminal gangs and… open a new chapter to rid our beloved Yemen of this nightmare,” Hadi said from Saudi Arabia, where he lives in exile.
Saleh was forced to step down in 2012, after his forces waged a bloody crackdown on peaceful Arab Spring-inspired protests calling for his ouster.
The 75-year-old had survived civil war, rebellion in the north, an Al-Qaeda insurgency in the south and a June 2011 bomb attack on his palace that wounded him badly.
His death could mark a major turning point in a conflict that has left thousands dead, led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and deepened tensions between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As the first reports of Saleh’s death came in, the Saudi-led coalition that has waged devastating air strikes against the Huthis since September 2015 warned residents to evacuate rebel-controlled areas.
“We ask civilians to remain at least 500 metres (yards) away from Huthi military vehicles and gatherings,” it said.
The Huthis announced Saleh’s death on the rebels’ Al-Masirah television station.
A statement declared “end of the crisis of militias”, referring to Saleh’s armed supporters, and “the killing of their leader and a number of his criminal supporters”.
Heavy fighting in Sanaa
A video provided to AFP by the rebels showed what appeared to be a dead Saleh with a severe head injury, his body wrapped in a floral-print blanket. Armed men could be seen loading the body into the back of a pick-up truck in an empty, sandy lot.
Saleh’s General People’s Congress party confirmed his death and blamed the rebels.
“He was martyred in the defence of the republic,” said Faiqa al-Sayyid, a GPC leader.
Sayyid said Saleh and other top party officials had came under Huthi gunfire as they fled Sanaa.
A military source said the Huthis stopped their four-car convoy about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Sanaa and shot dead Saleh and two other senior GPC officials.
The collapse of the alliance between Saleh and the rebels saw at least 100 people reported dead infighting, accusations of betrayal and the former leader reaching out to the Saudi-led coalition.
The fighting continued on Monday, with reports of heavy clashes and coalition strikes against Huthi-controlled government buildings and around Sanaa airport.
The government, which has operated out of southern city Aden since being ousted from the capital, ordered an offensive to advance on Sanaa.
“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,” a presidency official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Military and government sources said the army would advance on Sanaa from the east and northeast, with at least seven battalions ordered to move forward.
The government also reached out to Saleh’s 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,” said Prime Minister Ahmad Obaid bin Daghr.
Fears for civilians
The Saleh-Huthi alliance had 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 Iran of backing the rebels, intervened in Yemen on behalf of the government the following year.
Saleh on Saturday announced he was open to talks with Saudi Arabia and its allies on condition they ended their crippling blockade of Yemen’s ports and airports.
That dealt a serious blow to his already fragile alliance with rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Huthi.
In a televised speech on Monday, Huthi made no mention of Saleh’s death but expressed his satisfaction at the day’s events.
“Today marked the failure of the conspiracy and treason, a black day for the forces of aggression,” he said on Al-Masirah.
The fresh violence has increased fears for civilian victims of Yemen’s war, which has claimed more than 8,750 lives since the Saudi-led coalition intervened.
The conflict has pushed Yemen to the brink of mass starvation and triggered what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
International aid groups warned Monday they were losing the ability to reach civilians in Sanaa.
“Ambulances and medical teams can’t access injured, people can’t buy food and other supplies,” UNICEF’s Rajat Madhok tweeted.
“Aid workers can’t travel and implement critical life-saving programmes. This latest violence couldn’t come at a worse time.”