Shiite rebels urge Yemen offensive

Published: Sunday 22nd March 2015 by The News Editor

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Yemen’s Shiite rebels issued a call to arms to fight forces loyal to the country’s embattled president.

The development came as US troops were evacuating a southern air base crucial to America’s drone strike programme after al Qaida militants seized a nearby city.

Yemen is fighting al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the target of the drone programme, and facing a purported affiliate of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group that claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings killing at least 137 people on Friday.

All these factors could push the Arab world’s most impoverished country, united only in the 1990s, back toward civil war.

“I hate to say this, but I’m hearing the loud and clear beating of the drums of war in Yemen,” said Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington.

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, swept into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September and now control it and nine of the country’s 21 provinces.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a one-time prisoner of the Houthis in his own home, escaped last month and installed himself in Aden, declaring it the temporary capital amid the Houthi insurrection.

Yesterday, Mr Hadi gave his first televised address since fleeing the capital, striking a defiant tone. He described the rebels’ rule as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy”.

He also pledged to raise the Yemeni flag over the Maran mountains, a stronghold for the Houthis, members of the Shiite Zaydi sect that represents nearly 30% of Yemen’s population.

Mr Hadi also said regional Shiite power Iran supported the Houthis, something critics also allege and the rebels deny.

Sunni Gulf countries have lined up to support Mr Hadi and have moved their embassies to Aden to back him against the Shiite rebels.

Almost immediately after Mr Hadi’s speech, the Houthis issued a statement announcing their offensive against security and military institutions loyal to the president, calling it a battle against extremists.

“The council announces this decision to call the proud sons of the Yemeni people in all regions to unite and support and co-operate with the armed and security forces in confronting terrorist forces,” they said in the statement carried by the Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA.

Though seizing power in Sanaa and clashing with those protesting their power grab, the Houthis largely have not resorted to open warfare since beginning their campaign in September.

Their statement recalled the years of war fought in the country, once split between a Marxist south that once was a British colony and a northern republic.

As the threat of civil war grew, the UN Security Council called an emergency meeting for this afternoon to discuss the Yemen crisis.

Representatives of Yemen and Qatar, which currently heads the Gulf Co-operation Council, were scheduled to speak.

Meanwhile yesterday, US troops including Special Forces commandos were evacuating from the al-Annad air base in southern Yemen.

The air base, the country’s largest, was believed to have some 100 American troops stationed there.

The US state department said in a statement that it “has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen.”

Last night, a security official in Aden said a military transport plane from Oman evacuated 16 British military and security forces.

On Friday, al Qaida militants seized control of the southern provincial capital of al-Houta in the group’s most dramatic grab of territory in years.

That is near the al-Annad air base, which has been the scene of rocket attacks in the past by militants.

Major General Mahmoud al-Subeihi, the country’s defence minister who is loyal to Mr Hadi, said troops would be deployed near the base to protect it from militants.

The al-Annad base is where American and European military advisers help Yemen fight the country’s local al Qaida branch through drone strikes and logistical support.

The group, which holds territory in eastern Yemen, has said it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

US forces have also been involved in at least two hostage rescue raids in Yemen in recent months, including one that saw militants kill an American photojournalist and a South African teacher in December.

It is unclear what the pull-out will mean for the drone programme.

The US has carried out more than 100 suspected drone strikes in Yemen since 2009, according to the New America Foundation’s international security programme, which tracks the American campaign.

Civilian casualties from the strikes have stoked widespread anti-American sentiment in the country.

All this comes a day after suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Sanaa, unleashing monstrous blasts that killed 137 people, including at least 13 children.

A purported affiliate of IS claimed responsibility for the bombings, which also wounded 357 people – raising the alarming possibility the extremist group has expanded its presence to Yemen after already setting up a branch in Libya.

US officials expressed sceptisim about the claim, though there have been several online statements by individual Yemeni militants declaring allegiance to IS.

The presence of IS could set up yet another conflict in Yemen, as al Qaida and the extremists holding a third of Iraq and Syria are rivals.

Published: Sunday 22nd March 2015 by The News Editor

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