Yemen’s rebel alliance unravels amid Sanaa street clashes

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Snipers took over rooftops in residential areas, tanks deployed and militiamen set up checkpoints Sunday across the Yemeni capital, where fighting forced families to hunker down indoors in anticipation of more violence.

Five days of bombings and heavy gunfire have underscored the unraveling of the already fragile alliance between Yemen’s strongman and former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Shiite rebels known as Houthis. The two sides joined ranks three years ago and swept across the capital, Sanaa, forcing the country’s internationally recognized president to flee the country and seek military intervention led by Saudi Arabia.

After months of political and military stalemate, the street battles between Saleh’s forces and the Houthi militiamen have marked a turning point in the conflict. The two sides had been enemies before the six-year-war that began in 2004 when Saleh was a president. Their alliance, in the eyes of many Yemenis, was doomed to fail given their stark differences.

The Iran-backed rebels perceive themselves as a religious awakening movement, while Saleh is a pragmatic politician, shifting political alliances, buying tribal loyalties and exploiting Yemen’s power fault lines throughout his three-decades in power before he was ousted after the country’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Over the past 48 hours, in a series of surprise announcements, all of Yemen’s political players spoke about turning a new page and unifying against the Houthis — a new alliance that appeared to have been in the making for some time as the Shiite rebels have accused Saleh of working against them.

The Houthis, who descended from their northern enclave and seized Yemen’s capital in 2014 with the help of Saleh’s forces, are now becoming isolated in the face of popular anger.

Pictures of angry Yemenis tearing down posters of the Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik a-Houthi, in Sanaa flooded social media as street fighting there appeared to split the capital in two, with northern areas under Houthi control and southern ones under Saleh’s fighters.

Clashes between fighters loyal to Saleh and the Houthis first erupted last week when Saleh accused the rebels of storming his giant mosque in Sanaa and attacking his nephew, the powerful commander of the special forces, Tarek Saleh.

Both sides have set up checkpoints, placed snipers on rooftops and sealed off entrances to the city. Bombings and sporadic gunfire rocked the southern part of Sanaa on Sunday.

Many state institutions — including the airport, state TV headquarters and the official news agency — remain under the control of the Houthis, despite earlier reports that Saleh’s forces had taken them over.

A southern Sanaa district that houses the residential compound of Saleh and his family was surrounded during the intense clashes.

The fighting also spread to northern areas. In Amran, armed tribesmen tried to cut the road between the provinces of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, and Jawf, sparking clashes in which scores of tribesmen were killed and wounded, witnesses said.