Yemeni Ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed In Houthi Attack

Originally published on December 5, 2017 11:09 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is a crucial moment in Yemen's civil war. Yesterday, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's former president and leader of one of the main factions of the war, was killed by Houthi rebels. NPR's Ruth Sherlock says his death leaves a vacuum that makes the prospect for peace in Yemen less certain.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The first moments after Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed are caught on video. Houthi rebels shove his bloodied corpse onto the back of a pickup truck. They cheer and thank God over and over. They seem almost incredulous that this man is dead in their hands. Saleh was Yemen's president for 34 years until popular protests forced him out of power in 2012. And then as the country spiraled into civil war, he teamed up with Houthi rebels to seize control of the capital, Sana'a. But that alliance broke down and just last week, Saleh switched sides in the war.

The Houthis ambushed and killed him as he tried to leave Sana'a. It's a darkly ironic end for the man who was known for his deafness at playing politics. Peter J. Salisbury, a Middle East expert at the British think tank Chatham House, says Saleh was the fulcrum of power in Yemen. With him gone, he says, there's a dangerous vacuum.

PETER J. SALISBURY: What I can say with a relative degree of assurance is the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the near future looks increasingly unlikely.

SHERLOCK: Yemen is divided between Houthi rebels who have support from Iran and the government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia. Salisbury says he now expects this fighting to intensify. Sana'a, the capital, has been wracked by violence in the last few days.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SHERLOCK: Scared residents posted videos of the battles online - gunfire and airstrikes throughout the night. Ammar Basha, a documentary filmmaker, says it feels like the war is starting over.

AMMAR BASHA: We got attacked, like, by those jets. And my windows were shaking heavily and those bombs were, like, falling nearby. It just felt like someone pushed restart and the war started - restarted, you know? It's just like the first days of the war.

SHERLOCK: Yemen already suffers one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands are at serious risk of starvation. In Sana'a this week, aid workers were trapped in their homes by the fighting. If the conflict worsens, they warn, it's unclear how the country will cope. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.