Fears of a new Yemen civil war rising fast
Diplomatic staff from the United States and Britain have been withdrawn from Aden, amid rising tensions in the city.
Clashes in the southern city between fighters linked to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, and loyalists of the internationally recognised head of state, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi are increasing in intensity.
Two special forces bases that house troops allied to Saleh and the Houthis in Aden and Lahjej have been attacked by anti-Houthi groups, leading the rebel forces to withdraw from the hostile southern provinces.
People in the south fear that the withdrawal was a temporary measure and will lead to reprisal attacks.
The troops are thought to have since been bolstered with reinforcements by Houthi fighters from Sanaa and the newly conquered city of Taiz.
Hadi-aligned military units are reportedly making preparations for an attack on Taiz from the north, while anti-Houthi tribes are being mobilised to defend the city's south from further advances by the militia.
Two mosques with links to the Houthi movement were hit by suicide bombers on Friday, killing 142 people. Al-Qaeda denied it was behind the attack, saying it did not target mosques.
The Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), a militant organisation seen as more radical than al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the bombings.
Although sectarian tensions are not widely evident in Yemen, there are fears that political rivals and extremist groups could use the crisis to mobilise support based on sect.
The Houthis are a Shia-Zaydi group, viewed as "heretics" by the likes of the largely Sunni al-Qaeda and IS.
Yemen's south is largely Sunni, and the president, a southerner himself, appears to be ratcheting up his rhetoric to fit with this new sectarian trend.
"[I will ensure that] the Yemeni republic flag will fly on the Marran Mountain in Saada, instead of the Iranian flag," Hadi told his supporters, in his first televised speech since he fled the capital following the Houthi coup.
Saada, in the north, is the stronghold of the Houthis and the mountains are populated mainly by Shia-Zaydi tribes.
Iran, a largely Shia regime, has frequently been accused of supporting the Houthis and using the tribal militia as a way of increasing its influence in Yemen.
"The Iranian Twelver pattern that has been agreed upon between the Houthis and those who support them will not be accepted by Yemenis, whether Zaydi or Shafite," Hadi continued.
The Houthis' compelling ascent has not been built merely on sectarian loyalty or supposed Iranian backing but also on smart political calculations and strategic planning.
By bringing together several allies in a short space of time, the militia has been able to move from Yemen's political and geographical margins to centre stage.
"The Houthis have been very successful in pulling in many groups who are disaffected by the transitional government; with the corruption and undue influence from Saudi Arabia and America," Adam Baron, Yemen expert and visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.
Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda are viewed as an enemy by both Hadi loyalists, a majority of southerners, and the Houthis.
Almost all armed groups in Yemen, whether Zaydi or Sunni majority, have taken part in battles against the militant organisation.
|The Yemeni republic flag will fly on the Marran Mountain in Saada, instead of the Iranian flag.
- President Hadi
On Friday, Lahjej witnessed bloodshed and looting as militants linked to al-Qaeda entered the province's capital, al-Houta.
Fighters from the group killed 20 soldiers before army reinforcements arrived to drive out the militants.
Defence Minister Mahmoud al-Subeihi's troops then took full control of al-Anad - Yemen's largest airbase - hours after Yemeni anti-terrorism units and their US trainers were evacuated, fearing that al-Qaeda fighters would overrun the camp.
President Hadi's political demise signals a disintegration of US policy in Yemen, as has been further illustrated by this weekend's withdrawal of diplomatic staff from Aden.
Yemen is a strategic focal point for the US in the region and in President Hadi the Americans had a solid ally in their fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP).
Under President Hadi's rule, Yemen had allowed highly classified operatives within the secretive US Joint Special Operations Command to train local forces in fighting AQAP and to assist in collecting intelligence used in Washington's controversial campaign of drone attacks.
"President Hadi was one of the US' most important allies in the region, but he has had to flee Sanaa and is struggling to cling onto power," explained ECFR's Baron.
"What we are witnessing appears to be an absolute collapse of US policy in Yemen."
North v South
Lahjej and al-Dhale provinces are seen as the gates to the south's largest city, Aden.
Abyan, Hadi's hometown, covers the northeast perimeter of Aden and is controlled by the pro-Hadi army and popular committee units, both opposed to the Houthis and al-Qaeda.
Last year, Hadi sent a number of military brigades to Abyan to fight al-Qaeda militants. Officers and soldiers loyal to the president still control military camps in the province.
Fearing an imminent invasion by the Houthis or other pro-Saleh forces, the army and allied militias are understood to be focusing their attention on Lahjej and Dhale.
Houthi fighters have taken over Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city, and analysts believe this is a final step before the rebel group attempt to takeover the rest of the formerly independent south, including Aden.
Taiz overlooks the Red Sea, and lies just to the north of Lahjej and Aden.
Reports suggest that Houthi fighters in Taiz are alread readying for an assault on Aden.
Houthi fighters could launch a two-pronged assault on the southern city - by sea via the strategically significant Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and by land through Dhale and Lahjej.
Local sources told al-Araby al-Jadeed that tribes in the al-Subaiha area of Lahjej helped fend off an initial attack by Houthi militants and pro-Saleh forces.
Yemen's defence minister also is said to have led a number oftroops into al-Karsh, a border area between Lahjej and Taiz, to defend the south against a northern assault.
There are fears that skirmishes in the restive provinces will develop into an all-out war that could send Yemen back to the dark days of 1994, when as many as 10,000 Yemenis were killed as the north fought southern secessionists.
Tribesmen and popular committee fighters in the Radfan hills have also taken control of military bases and set up checkpoints in the area, waiting for the Houthi assault they fear is only days - or hours - away.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.