ADEN: Houthi militia forces in Yemen backed by allied army units seized an air base on Wednesday and appeared close to capturing the southern port of Aden from defenders loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, residents said.
The United States said that Mr Hadi, who has been holed up in Aden since fleeing the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa last month, was no longer at his residence. It offered no other details on his movements.
After taking al-Anad air base, the Houthis and their military allies, supported by heavy armour, advanced to within 20km of Aden.
Soldiers at Aden’s Jabal al-Hadeed barracks fired into the air to prevent residents from entering the base and arming themselves, witnesses said, suggesting that Mr Hadi’s control over the city was fraying.
Houthi fighters and allied military units had advanced to Dar Saad, a village a half-hour’s drive from central Aden, residents there said.
Earlier, unidentified warplanes fired missiles at the Aden neighbourhood where Mr Hadi’s compound is located, residents said. Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on the planes.
The city’s airport was closed and all flights were cancelled for security reasons, guards at the facility said.
Yemen’s slide towards civil war has made the country a crucial front in mostly Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of stirring up sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.
Sunni Arab monarchies around Yemen have condemned the Shia Houthi takeover as a coup and have mooted a military intervention in favour of Mr Hadi in recent days.
US officials say Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.
Saudi sources said the build-up, which also included tanks, was purely defensive.
While the battle for Aden is publicly being waged by the Houthi movement, many there believe that the real instigator of the campaign is former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a fierce critic of Mr Hadi.
It was Mr Saleh who was the author of Aden’s previous humiliation in 1994, when as president he crushed a southern secessionist uprising in a short war.
Unlike other regional leaders deposed in the Arab Spring, Mr Saleh was allowed to remain in the country.
Army loyalists close to Mr Saleh on Wednesday warned against foreign interference, saying on his party website that Yemen would confront such a move “with all its strength”.
Diplomats say they suspect the Houthis want to take Aden before an Arab summit this weekend, to pre-empt an expected attempt by Mr Hadi’s ally Saudi Arabia to rally Arab support at the gathering for military intervention in Yemen.
Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2015