Houthi rebels tighten grip on Sana’a after Saleh’s assassination
London - Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels moved to consolidate their grip on Sana’a after forces loyal to the group killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Media reports from Yemen said the Houthis were rounding up or placing under house arrest officials from Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party. Dozens of Saleh’s loyalists, including his nephew and the head of his party, have reportedly been killed during Houthi raids.
Under the guise of cracking down on corruption, the rebels have seized the assets of many GPC members.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the Houthis detained more than 40 media staff.
“This hostage-taking is typical of the climate of hostility in Yemen towards journalists, who are often targeted in this conflict,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East desk.
Among those detained were workers at the pro-GPC television station Yemen Today, which has resumed broadcasting but from Cairo rather Sana’a. Yemen Today called on Yemenis to revolt against the Houthis.
The rebels in Sana’a dispersed a demonstration by women demanding the body of Saleh for his funeral. It was not clear where the Houthis, who have confirmed they still hold Saleh’s body, intend to bury the former president.
Yemenis on social media said they were using alternative systems to bypass a block on Facebook and Twitter apparently imposed by the Houthis.
Many Yemenis have been staying indoors and stocking up on basic goods as clashes between the rebels and Saleh’s loyalists occasionally flare up. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 230 people have been killed in the fighting between the former allies since early December. The Houthis staged a mass ceremony to honour militants killed in fights with Saleh’s loyalists.
Saleh, who was killed on December 4 by rebels in Sana’a, had formed an alliance of convenience with the Houthis after they seized control of the capital in September 2014.
The two sides, which had previously been enemies, joined forces to topple the internationally recognised government led by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been backed by a Saudi-led coalition since March 2015.
Saudi Arabia called for a Yemen free of “militias supported by Iran” and the Hadi government ordered its troops to advance to Sana’a. Pro-government troops reportedly drove the Houthis from the Red Sea town of Khokha.
The fallout between Saleh’s loyalists and the Houthis could mean the rebels will be weaker.
“The Houthis have lost their popular and political cover. This is a natural result of their betrayal and their terror crimes against your leaders. They (Houthis) will lose in the (war) fronts after they lost their popular cover,” tweeted Faika al-Sayed Ba-Alawi, a leading member of the GPC.
“The brutality in which Saleh was executed created huge sympathy for his family and for the GPC even in areas like Taiz that his forces bombed for [more than two-and-a-half] years,” tweeted Nadwa Dawsari, a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
To impose their will, the Houthis are likely to resort to more brutality.
“Houthis are going to rule Sana’a using fear. They are going to use that fear with the tribes,” Osamah al-Rawhani, from the think-tank Sana’a Centre, told Al Jazeera.
Saleh’s death may have made the chances of reaching a resolution to the conflict more difficult as he was viewed as a figure able to strike a compromise deal.
“Without his deal-making skills, the civil war he helped to spark and the devastating humanitarian crisis it caused are only likely to get worse,” Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, wrote on the BBC website.
“With Saleh dead and his allied forces apparently crumbling in the face of a Houthi onslaught, the future of Yemen’s conflict looks grim.”
Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, predicted more violence to engulf Yemen.
“The latest events only seem to portend a deepening cycle of violence, one that pushes any de-escalation — let alone peace — even further away,” he told the website justsecurity.org.