Yemen 'slipping towards all-out civil war'

Yemen 'slipping towards all-out civil war'
Suicide bombers targeted mosques in Sanaa, killing hundreds, a day after the president fled an air raid on his residence in Aden, as analysts warned divided Yemen was slipping towards all-out civil war.
5 min read
20 March, 2015
Militiamen loyal to president Hadi sit on tanks in Aden on March 19. [STR/AFP/Getty]

Over 100 people have been killed and over 300 wounded in triple suicide bombings on Friday targeting mosques attended by Houthis militiamen in the Yemeni capital, medics said. 

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted Badr mosque in southern Sanaa and Al-Hashahush mosque in the northern Jarraf neighbourhood.

In an online statement, the previously unknown Sanaa branch of IS warned that the bombings were "just the tip of the iceberg".

The mosques are known to be used mainly by supporters of the Shia Muslim Houthi group which has seized control of the government.

The blasts come a day after intense gun battles in the southern city of Aden, between rival troops loyal to Yemen's former and current president, left 13 dead. 

On Thursday, forces loyal to Yemen's former president stormed the international airport in Aden on Thursday and sent fighter planes to bomb the residence in the southern port city where the current president has been based since fleeing from the rebel-held capital last month. 

Troops fended off the airport attack, the airstrikes missed the residence and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was in a safe place, Aden's governor Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour said. 

But the violence, which he said had left 13 people dead, marked a major escalation in Hadi's long-simmering conflict with former autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Shia rebels, known as Houthis.

Hadi remains Yemen's internationally recognised president and has been a close US ally in the battle against a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate. 

Thursday's attacks were led by forces loyal to Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 in the face of an Arab Spring uprising. A UN and Gulf-brokered deal saw Hadi, his vice president, assume office. 

But Saleh had never conceded power, and Hadi has accused his predecessor of acting through well-placed loyalists to obstruct efforts to reform the government and the security forces. The UN Security Council has sanctioned Saleh and top Houthi rebel leaders.

The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds and seized the capital Sanaa in September. They now control at least nine of Yemen's 21 provinces. Hadi fled Sanaa last month after the Houthis put him under house arrest and he established a temporary capital in Aden, Yemen's main economic hub and the former capital of the once-independent south.

Escalating violence

The assault on the airport set off clashes between forces loyal to Saleh and Hadi in Aden, with explosions echoing through the largely deserted streets. The warplanes then launched three airstrikes at Hadi's palace, located on a rocky hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. The strikes caused no damage and Hadi was not present at the time, bin Habtour said. 

It was not clear whether the planes were flown by Saleh loyalists in the military or by Houthi rebels, who control several military and air bases in and around Sanaa. 

The attempt to capture Aden's airport appeared to be aimed at isolating Hadi and weakening his hold on the city. It is not yet clear if he will be able to leave Aden by the end of the month to attend an Arab Summit in Egypt. Officials said the airport is operating again, but there were no flights out Thursday evening.

Late Thursday, a statement issued by Hadi described the day's events as a "failed military coup against constitutional legitimacy." 

Hadi is a southerner, and his loyalists in the military, police and militias known as Popular Committees dominate Aden. But two army units in the city are loyal to Saleh, as are 3,000 police special forces under Brig. Gen. Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf. Hadi tried unsuccessfully to reassign al-Saqqaf earlier this month, prompting clashes. 

It was al-Saqqaf's forces that stormed the airport early Thursday, sparking battles with pro-Hadi forces. Machine-gun fire rang out and explosions shook the terminal building. 

During the fighting, more than 100 passengers were rushed off a Cairo-bound plane of the national carrier Yemenia that had been waiting on the tarmac and into the terminal building.

"One day it is the Houthis, another day it is al-Qaida and now Saleh's forces. We are getting it from all directions. We deserve some mercy," a middle-aged man said as he looked out at the tarmac from the departure lounge. 

One of Hadi's presidential planes, a Boeing 747, was damaged when Saleh loyalists sprayed it with gunfire, the officials said. 

During more than four hours of fighting, a convoy of tanks and armored vehicles led by Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, a Hadi loyalist, arrived from downtown Aden to reinforce the airport's defenders. Al-Subaihi's troops then ordered passengers out of the terminal and the airport building, through the thick of the clashes. 

Security officials meanwhile said prison guards loyal to Saleh had opened the gates of the central Aden prison, allowing about 300 prisoners to escape before Hadi's Popular Committees sealed the facility. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. 

Armored vehicles and tanks fanned out across the city and Public Committee militiamen roamed the streets in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Pro-Hadi forces deployed around hotels and government buildings. 

Yemen is effectively split in half, with the rebels in the north having disbanded parliament and declared themselves the country's rulers. Hadi remains popular in the formerly independent south, which has bristled under Sanaa's rule since the 1994 civil war. 

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula with strongholds in the vast and lawless east, has exploited the turmoil, stepping up attacks on Yemeni forces and the Shia rebels.
Washington fears the ongoing political instability will help  AQAP to flourish. 

Jordan Perry, an analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, said the latest violence meant Yemen was "lurching closer towards all-out civil war".