Yemen’s Ex-President Killed as Mayhem Convulses Capital

SWEIMEH, Jordan — Just days ago, the former strongman of Yemen turned against his most recent allies and publicly denounced them as a “coup militia.” They struck back on Monday, killing him and spreading a video of his lifeless body dumped unceremoniously in the back of a pickup truck.

The death of the former strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, brought to a grim end the career of a wily politician who combined charisma, duplicity and brute force to remain a giant in the politics of his impoverished Arabian country for decades.

Mr. Saleh’s death signaled a turning point in the country’s war by shattering the alliance between his loyalists and the rebels known as the Houthis, who had taken over the capital, prompting a punishing bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

That political fracturing could make it harder for the parties to negotiate an end to the conflict, analysts said, while renewed fighting in the capital, Sana, could worsen the humanitarian crisis afflicting Yemen, which the United Nations has called the world’s worst.

Seven million Yemenis — nearly a third of the population — are at risk of starving. Millions more need emergency food aid.

“His being killed like this is going to deepen the conflict. I think the war could become more fierce. This just adds more layers of revenge,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Like him or hate him, Saleh’s death in this way is more than likely going to bring more pain for Yemen.”

Throughout his career, which included 33 years as president, Mr. Saleh deftly manipulated the competing demands of Yemen’s tribes, politicians and foreign allies like the United States to make himself the country’s most towering political figure.

He compared governing Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes” and proved remarkably good at it for many years. But when the uprisings known as the Arab Spring began in 2011, angry Yemenis flooded public squares to call for political change — and his ouster.

After dispatching his forces to brutalize protesters and surviving an assassination attempt via a bomb hidden in a mosque pulpit, Mr. Saleh agreed to leave office in 2012 in an agreement negotiated by foreign powers who hoped he would slip into a quiet retirement abroad.

He did not, instead returning to Yemen to rally his followers and form an unlikely alliance with the Houthis, who stormed Sana in 2014 and later forced the internationally recognized government that had replaced Mr. Saleh into exile.

His death came at the hands of the same rebels he had used to facilitate his return to political relevance.

“Sources confirm Saleh was killed after all,” Nadwa Dawsari, a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, wrote on Twitter as news of his death spread. “The man who danced his whole life on the heads of snakes was killed today by one of his pet snakes.”

A still from a video provided on Monday by Houthi rebels reportedly showing the body of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen.CreditHouthi rebels, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Others observed that Mr. Saleh had never been held accountable for the rampant human rights abuses during his decades in power.

“Saleh should have died in prison after his countless victims had the opportunity to confront him in court,” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, he apparently died as he lived, through betrayal and violence.”

Mr. Saleh was killed in response to his latest political maneuver, turning against the Houthis and suggesting an accommodation with Saudi Arabia and its allies to end the war.

After years of collaborating against forces loyal to the Yemeni government, tensions between Mr. Saleh’s supporters and the Houthis erupted into deadly street clashes in Sana last week. On Saturday, Mr. Saleh condemned the Houthis in a televised speech and called for a “new page” with Saudi Arabia and its allies to stop the war.

The Houthis accused Mr. Saleh of treachery and said he had plotted secretly with Saudi Arabia to turn on them.

The exact circumstances of Mr. Saleh’s death remained unclear.

Early Monday, Houthi forces raided one of his homes in Sana. Later, a video appeared on social media showing his lifeless body, with wounds on his face and chest, carried in a flowery red blanket and dumped in the bed of a pickup truck.

Maj. Gen. Abdelwahab Dahab, a Houthi commander, said Houthi fighters had learned that Mr. Saleh had fled the capital and so had set an ambush in the desert for his vehicles.

“The moment he appeared, they took a violent turn in an effort to flee but they were quickly overwhelmed by our gunfire,” General Dahab said.

But a tribal leader in Sana who supported Mr. Saleh said that Houthi forces had killed him during the raid on his house, and had taken his body into the desert to make it appear that he had been fleeing like a coward.

The tribal leader spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself from retribution by the Houthis.

In a televised speech, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, said Mr. Saleh had been killed because he was a traitor.

“Today is the day of the fall of the conspiracy of betrayal and treason,” he said. “It is a dark day for the forces of the coalition.”

Houthi fighters outside the residence of Mr. Saleh in Sana, the capital of Yemen, on Monday.CreditMohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Saleh’s death solidified the break between his political party, the General People’s Congress, and the Houthis, which analysts feared would lead to more violence in the capital.

Ms. Alley, the Yemen analyst, said that many had been calling for Mr. Saleh to leave political life for years, but that his violent demise threatened to leave his party in disarray and set off a cycle of revenge.

His death also left Saudi Arabia facing only the Houthis, a more ideological enemy whom it sees as an Iranian proxy.

“If Saudi Arabia wanted a negotiated exit, that opportunity seems lost for now,” Ms. Alley said.

Maged Almadhaji, director of the Sana Center for Strategic Studies, said that the break with Mr. Saleh and his killing left the Houthis weaker and more isolated than at any time since the start of the war — in addition to ruling over a suffering, angry population.

“They have never been as stripped and as naked as this,” he said.

That could shift the war in Saudi Arabia’s favor, if it can find a way to channel the anti-Houthi sentiments.

“But the question is whether they have a strategy to take advantage of what happened,” he said. “I don’t think so at this point.”

In a brief television appearance, the president of the internationally recognized Yemen government, Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia, called on residents of Houthi-controlled areas to revolt, but there was little sign of a response.

Airstrikes targeted the Republican Palace, which the Saudi-led coalition had avoided bombing previously, despite the Houthi-led administration’s use of it to run the city. And Houthi fighters were detaining members of Mr. Saleh’s party while residents cowered in their homes, fearing new airstrikes and clashes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that at least 125 people had been killed and many more had been wounded in fighting in Sana since Wednesday, and the United Nations appealed to the rival factions to observe a pause on Tuesday to allow civilians to move to safety and relief agencies to deliver aid.

Two Sana hospitals had completely run out of the fuel needed to keep electricity generators and lifesaving equipment operating, said Iolande Jaquemet, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

Amid the upsurge in fighting, the United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, announced on Monday the selection of three international law experts to conduct an investigation of human rights abuses in Yemen. The move followed a Human Rights Council resolution approved in September despite fierce initial resistance from Saudi Arabia.

The inquiry is to examine attacks on civilians in a conflict in which most civilian casualties appear to have been caused by Saudi coalition bombing. The inquiry also is to examine widespread recruitment of children by warring parties and arbitrary arrests and detentions.

“It is essential that those who have inflicted such violations and abuses are held to account,” Mr. Hussein said.

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