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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

The end of the unholy alliance as Yemen's Saleh dumps the Houthis

It comes amid fierce clashes between Saleh loyalists and Houthi fighters on the streets of the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, with the Saleh loyalists now in control of most of the city

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh says he is open to talks with the Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognised government as fierce clashes continued for a fourth day in Sanaa between fighters loyal to him and Houthi rebels.

Mr Saleh and his supporters formed an alliance with the Iran-backed Houthis against the Yemeni government in 2014. But in recent months tensions have increased between the two sides.

Things came to a head earlier this week with fighting breaking out between the two sides on the streets of the rebel-held capital, with an official telling The National on Saturday that Saleh loyalists were now in control of most of the city.

"I call on our brothers in neighbouring countries … to stop their aggression and lift the blockade … and we will turn the page," Mr Saleh said in a televised speech on Saturday. He called for a joint ceasefire and urged an end to "militia rule on Yemeni land."

Earlier, Mr Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party said the Houthis were to blame for dragging the country and appealed to all security and military forces and all public employees not to implement Houthi directives in any of Yemen's provinces and to adopt neutrality.

The Saudi-led coalition, in which the UAE plays a leading role, has fought Saleh loyalists and the Iran-backed Houthis rebels on behalf of the government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi since March 2015. The coalition closed Yemen's borders and shut access to its sea and air ports on November 6 in response to a missile attack launched by the Houthis that targeted Riyadh's international airport, but has since begun lifting some restrictions.

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The coalition welcomed Mr Saleh's comments, releasing a statement via the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) which said: "The decision by (Mr Saleh's) General People's Congress (party) to take the lead and their choice to side with their people will free Yemen of … militias loyal to Iran."

Meanwhile, Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted that Qatari mediation "which aims to rescue the sectarian militia of Al Houthi … is not going to succeed".

Dr Gargash followed up with another tweet some hours later, saying, " Sanaa and Yemen's revolution is awakening from the nightmare of following the deceiving calls for sectarianism, which are against the interest of the Yemeni people."

The Houthis, who have repeatedly refused to take part in UN-brokered peace talks, slammed Mr Saleh's speech.

"Saleh's speech is a coup against our alliance and partnership … and exposed the deception of those who claim to stand against aggression," a Houthi spokesman said in a statement carried by the rebels' Al Masirah TV.

It came as a source in Sanaa told The National that residents were beginning to flee their homes on Saturday amid "fierce confrontations" between forces loyal to Mr Saleh and Houthi rebels. In Nahm directorate, north-east of Sanaa, more than than 20 Houthi fighters were killed and dozens wounded in a battle with the Yemeni national Army. Colonel Abdullah Al Shindqi, spokesman for the 7th military district, said the remainder of the Houthis were fleeing towards Sanaa, leaving behind vehicles and medium and light weapons.

The clashes between the former allies began on Wednesday when Houthi fighters tried to enter Al Saleh Mosque in Sanaa, which is under the control of Saleh loyalists.

They fought with the mosque guards and then moved on to the guards protecting the home nearby of Tareq Saleh, nephew of the former president. The rebels also besieged the residence of Ibrahim Sharaf, foreign minister in the Sanaa government. Three guards were killed and three more wounded.

Fighting escalated with the two sides using heavy weaponry, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-aircraft cannons, the source said. The number of fatalities is unknown but images on social media showed many dead.

Another witness, Ashraf Mamoon, who lives in Sanaa and works in a tool shop in Algeria Street, one of Saturday's conflict areas,told The National, "All public institutions, including schools and University went on holiday today because of the clashes. Many residents have run away to save their families and many dare not leave their houses at all. The violence is ongoing."

Mr Mamoon also said both sides were using Kalashnikovs and mortars.

A senior official in the rebel-run moral guidance department said elite renegade soldiers loyal to Mr Saleh had made major advances against the Houthis, seizing key rebel positions in the city and surrounding areas at rapid speed.

"Republican Guard forces control Sanaa airport, Al Sawad (military) camp, the ministry of finance, and the television area" in addition to the moral guidance department, the official told The National.

Most of the capital is now controlled by either Republican Guard forces or tribesmen loyal to Mr Saleh, the official said, adding that Saleh loyalists north of Sanaa were preventing any Houthi reinforcements from entering the city from the rebels' northern stronghold of Saada.

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The official said Mr Saleh had called on his forces to return to their headquarters to keep the city safe, however, though political analysts expected the city to fall completely to his loyalists within hours.

The Houthis seized Sanaa in September 2014 and later advanced south, capturing much of the country and forcing the Yemeni government to relocate to the second city of Aden. Following its intervention in the conflict in March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition helped pro-government forces to reverse some of the rebels' gains, though the now crumbling Houthi-Saleh alliance still controls large swathes of territory.

Cracks first surfaced between the Saleh and Houthi camps in August of this year when the rebels accused the former president of treason after he publicly dismissed the Houthis as "militias". Relations between the two sides deteriorated rapidly, with Houthi fighters killing one of Mr Saleh's top military commanders and reportedly injuring his son.

Tensions eventually seemed to ease, however, and the outbreak of widespread violence was averted — until this week.

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