Oct 14, 2014 9:44 AM
Yemen rebels take port city, province near capital
The Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen (AP) Shiite rebels who recently overran Yemen's capital on Tuesday seized control of a key port city on the Red Sea and a province south of Sanaa in a stunning new blitz that is certain to deepen the country's turmoil, security and military officials said.
The land grab indicates the rebels, also known as the Houthis, may be determined to carve out a mini-state within Yemen, taking advantage of the weakness of the central government and the disarray in the army and security forces.
The Shiite rebels' offensive is the latest chapter in the chaos prevailing across much of this impoverished country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemen analysts say the Houthis, who are widely suspected of being supported by Iran, may be building on the momentum gained from their recent battlefield successes only months ago no one had thought they would seize the capital, Sanaa to snatch more territory. Apart from Sanaa, they also have taken control of the provinces of Saada and Omran to the north.
But the analysts are skeptical the Houthis have the manpower or the expertise to hold and govern vast areas, though some have speculated the rebels intend to capture a sea outlet to ensure the flow of supplies. Two years ago, Yemeni authorities intercepted two allegedly Iranian vessels carrying weapons officials said were destined for the Houthis, but the Shiite group denied any link to the incident.
On Tuesday, the rebels pushed into the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, located west of Sanaa and the capital of a province with the same name, which they had besieged for days, said Yemeni officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The rebels set up checkpoints and deployed forces at all entry points to the city, its airport and seaport, and were also in control of several military bases inside Hodeida, 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Sanaa. They also deployed armed supporters outside key state installations in the city, whose population is estimated at about 1 million.
The officials said the Houthis also raided a seaside residence belonging to their long-time adversary, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who commanded Yemen's elite 1st Armored Division and took part in fighting against the rebels between 2004 and 2010.
Al-Ahmar, linked to the rebels' Islamist foes in the Sunni Islah Party, has been on the run since the fall of Sanaa on Sept. 21.
South of Sanaa, the Houthis took Damar province and its provincial capital, also called Damar. The officials said soldiers and police vanished from Damar city streets and have now been replaced by armed Houthis.
The capture of Damar appeared to have been made possible with help from the local al-Maqadshah tribe, known to be loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president of 33 years who stepped down in 2011 but retains vast influence among tribes and the military.
The Houthis' ongoing military campaign began in the summer when they defeated militant Islamists holding several small pockets in Saada. In July, they captured Omran, which lies immediately to the north of Sanaa, before they laid siege to the capital and then finally overran it in September.
Critics of the rebels say they have modelled their movement after the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has carved a de facto state-within-a-state in southern and eastern Lebanon, as well as the densely populated suburbs south of Beirut.
The Yemeni rebels subscribe to the Shiite Zaydi sect and take their name from the Houthi family which founded the movement in Saada and claims descent from Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the southern port city of Aden on Tuesday, calling for secession from the north of the country. Southern Yemen was an independent nation until it was unified with the north in 1990. A movement to break away from the union was ruthlessly crushed in 1994 by the army of the now-ousted Saleh.
On Tuesday, the protesters in Aden burned images of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the movement's current leader, and of Saleh, the former president. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters demonstrated on the streets of Sanaa to call on the armed Houthis to leave the capital.
The Houthis' lightening offensive across Yemen and the Southerners' secessionist movement have compounded the myriad troubles that threaten to break the country apart.
Yemen is also home to what Washington views as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida. For years, it has also endured political instability amid an Arab Spring uprising and relentless attacks by al-Qaida militants targeting its military and security troops. Its forces have faced large scale bombings and suicide attacks and have unsuccessfully battled to rout al-Qaida militants from strongholds they control in the south and the country's remote hinterland.