Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has said he is ready for a “new page” in ties with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen if it stopped attacks on his country, in a move that could offer a pathway to end nearly three years of war.
The apparent shift in position came as forces loyal to Mr Saleh battled Houthi fighters for a fourth day in the capital Sanaa – with both sides claiming control of areas of the city. Violent clashes between rival factions in Yemen’s rebel-held capital signal the disintegration of the rebel alliance at war with a Saudi-led coalition for nearly three years.
The coalition has been fighting to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis along with Mr Saleh’s forces in Yemen since March 2015. The coalition had also imposed a blockade on the country, allowing occasional humanitarian access, with the aim of reinstating the internationally recognised government of Mr Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
“I call upon the brothers in neighbouring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighbourliness,” Mr Saleh announced in a televised interview with the TV station Yemen al-Youm.
“We will deal with them in a positive way and what happened to Yemen is enough,” he added.
The clashes between Mr Saleh’s supporters and the Houthis underscore the complex situation in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, where a proxy war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed Mr Hadi has caused one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent times.
Local residents who said that loud explosions were heard overnight across the city and into Saturday morning. Mediation efforts by tribal elders and officials over the past few days have come to nothing.
“It’s been like a street war,” they said, adding that ambulances have been ferrying the wounded to hospitals. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. There has been no official word on casualties but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that dozens were killed and hundreds were wounded in the fighting.
The UN urged the coalition in a statement Saturday to “fully lift” the blockade on Yemen’s red sea ports saying that partial lifting only “slows the collapse toward a massive humanitarian tragedy costing millions of lives”.
Mr Saleh, who led Yemen for more than 30 years, was deposed in a 2011 uprising. The country has since fallen into chaos and Mr Saleh later joined the Houthis to drive Mr Hadi out of the capital in 2014.
In his address, he also blamed Houthis for laying siege to the homes of several officials in the General People’s Congress, which he leads, and “storming” a mosque named after him. Broadcasting of Yemen al-Youm was stopped shortly after.
Officials working at the TV station say Houthis raided its headquarters. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
The Saudi-led coalition welcomed Mr Saleh’s change of stance.
In a statement carried by the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath channel, the coalition said it was “confident of the will of the leaders and sons” of Saleh’s GPC party to return to Arab fold.
Mr Hadi, in a statement after a meeting with his advisors, also said he was ready to work with Mr Saleh against the Houthis.
“The meeting calls for turning a new page with all the political sides … And to form a broad national coalition that will lay the foundations for a new era and unify everyone against the coup militia,” the statement said.
The coalition accuses Iran of trying to expand its influence into Arab countries, including Yemen by aligning themselves with the Houthis and Mr Saleh.
The Houthis accused Mr Saleh of betrayal, and vowed to keep up the fight against the Saudi-led coalition.
“It is not strange or surprising that Saleh turns his back on a partnership he never believed in,” the group’s political bureau said in a statement. “The priority has been and still is to confront the forces of aggression.”
The Houthi group leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, had earlier appealed to Mr Saleh to avoid any escalation, saying that the crisis would only serve Yemen’s enemies.
The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and the ICRC urged the parties to avoid targeting civilians.
Mr Saleh’s GPC party accused the Houthis of failing to honour a truce and said in a statement on its website that the Houthis bear responsibility for dragging the country into a civil war. It also called on supporters, including tribal fighters, to “defend themselves, their country, their revolution and their republic.”
The GPC appealed to the army and security forces to remain neutral in the conflict.
Yemen’s war has killed more than 10,000 people since 2015, displaced more than two million people, caused a cholera outbreak infecting nearly one million people and led the country on the brink of famine.
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