Abdul-Salam Ali Gaber is the most senior Houthi to defect since war broke out
Defected Houthi official says militants drawing their 'last breath'
In his first public statement since fleeing war-torn Yemen, a senior member of the country’s rebel-run government announced on Sunday his defection from the Houthi militia, saying that members of the organisation were “drawing their last breath”.
Abdul-Salam Ali Gaber is the most senior member of the Houthi administration to defect since the civil war broke out in 2014, dealing a blow to the rebels' often portrayed image of cohesion as they battle an offensive by a Saudi-led coalition to retake the key Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.
In a press conference in Riyadh on Sunday, Mr Gaber said that more splits were emerging within the militants' ranks.
He did not provide details but said that the coming days would reveal the extent of the schism.
He said that his arrival to Riyadh had created more scope for attempts to reinstate legitimate rule over Yemen.
Mr Gaber also commented on conditions inside Houthi-held territory in Yemen, saying that the group was displaying typical “militia behaviour” in the territory it controls. He said violations by the organisation include kidnapping and detaining journalists, torturing captives and conscripting child soldiers.
Mr Gaber reportedly disappeared early last week, prompting members of the Houthi organisation to storm his residence only to find he was gone, a source affiliated to the group told The National.
According to the Sanaa-based source, the minister vanished after an argument with Ahmed Hamid, an official in the Houthi presidency office.
"The Houthis have been keeping an eye on many ministers and high ranking officials, especially those who don't belong to the Zaidi sect," the source said, in reference to the Shia sect which comprises most of the Houthi group. "They don't trust them anymore after many have fled Sanaa and joined the legitimate government."
A journalist for the Houthi-run Al Masirah channel accused Mr Gaber of betraying his country and joining the Arab Coalition.
Ali Dhafer tweeted: "Since Abdul-Salam Gaber has betrayed his country and went to be embraced by Saudi Arabia, we hope of those who are in charge to give up putting such people in such higher positions and put the qualified and the professional ones instead and endorse those who are loyalists for the country and the people."
In October, the Houthi deputy minister of education Dr Abdullah Al Hamdi said he severed ties with the Iran-backed militia, calling for an uprising against the rebels.
The coalition has been fighting the Houthis on the side of the government and its allies since 2015.
Meanwhile in Hodeidah, Yemeni government forces pressed further into the strategic port city, seizing its main hospital in heavy fighting on Saturday.
A loyalist official said mortar rounds were "falling like rain" in the streets as troops overcame rebel-laid mines and snipers to take control of the main hospital in the city of 600,000 people.
The rebels have put up fierce resistance to the government advance towards the city's vital docks, which are the point of entry for 80 per cent of Yemen's commercial imports, and nearly all UN-supervised humanitarian aid.