Yemen’s embattled President fled his palace in Aden for an undisclosed location on Wednesday as Shia rebels offered cash bounty for his capture and abducted his Defence Minister.
President Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi left just hours after the rebels’ own television station said they seized an air base where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its >fight against al-Qaeda militants . That air base is only 60 kilometres away from Aden, the port city where Mr. Hadi had >established a temporary capital .
Witnesses said they saw a convoy of presidential vehicles on Wednesday leaving Mr. Hadi’s palace, located at the top of a hill in Aden overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Presidential officials said Mr. Hadi was in an operations room overseeing his forces’ response. They declined to say where that facility was located. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to brief journalists.
The advance of the Shia rebels, known as Houthis, threatens to plunge the Arab world’s poorest country into a civil war that could draw in its Gulf neighbors. Already, Mr. Hadi had asked the United Nations to authorise a foreign military intervention in the country.
Yemen’s state television broadcaster, controlled by Houthis, made an offer of some $100,000 for Mr. Hadi’s capture. Officials meanwhile said that the country’s Defence Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi and his top aide were arrested in the southern city of Lahj, where fighting with Houthi forces was ongoing, before they were transferred to Sanaa.
Already, military officials said militias and military units loyal to Mr. Hadi had “fragmented,” speeding the rebel advance. They said the rebels were fighting Hadi’s allied forces on five different fronts on Wednesday.
Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, said that their forces were not aiming to “occupy” the south. “They will be in Aden in few hours,” Mr. Abdel-Salam told the Houthis’ satellite Al-Masirah news channel.
Earlier, Al-Masirah reported that the Houthis and allied fighters had “secured” the al-Annad air base, the country’s largest. It claimed the base had been looted by both al-Qaeda fighters and troops loyal to Mr. Hadi.
The reported Houthi takeover of the base took place after hours-long clashes between rival forces around the base. The U.S. recently >evacuated some 100 soldiers , including Special Forces commandos, from the base after al-Qaeda briefly seized a nearby city. Britain also evacuated soldiers.
The base was crucial in the U.S. drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which America considers to be the most dangerous branch of the terror group. American and European military advisers there also offered logistical in its fight against the al-Qaeda group, which holds territory in eastern Yemen and has claimed directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
U.S. operations against the militants have been scaled back dramatically amid the chaos in Yemen. U.S. officials have said CIA drone strikes will continue in the country, though there will be fewer of them. The agency’s ability to collect intelligence on the ground in Yemen, while not completely gone, is also much diminished.
The takeover of the base is part of the wider offensive led by Houthis, backed by loyalists of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh within Yemen’s armed forces.
The Houthis, in the aftermath of suicide bombings in Sanaa last week that killed at least 137 people, ordered a general mobilisation of its forces. The group’s leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, vowed to send his forces to the south under the context of fighting al-Qaeda and militant groups.
The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September and have been advancing south alongside forces loyal to Saleh.
On Tuesday, Houthi militias and allied forces fired bullets and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in the city of Taiz, known as the gateway to southern Yemen. The Houthis killed six demonstrators and wounded scores more, authorities said.
The Houthis also battled militias loyal to Mr. Hadi in the city of al-Dhalea adjacent to Taiz, which is Yemen’s third-largest city. The city also is the birthplace of its 2011 Arab Spring-inspired uprising that forced Mr. Saleh to hand over power to Mr. Hadi in a deal brokered by the U.N. and Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.”
Diplomatic missions of Hadi’s Arab Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have evacuated their diplomatic staff from Aden over the past few days, officials said. They earlier evacuated from Sanaa and relocated to Aden to support Mr. Hadi.