Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been killed in the capital Sanaa, dealing a blow to hopes of an end to the country’s protracted conflict.
Saleh died after days of intense street fighting between his forces and Houthi rebels, a senior aide to Saleh told CNN.
CNN has also seen footage and video that appeared to show Saleh’s dead body. The images could not be independently verified.
Sanaa’s Houthi-controlled Interior Ministry announced Saleh’s death in a statement. “The militias of treason are finished and their leader has been killed,” the statement said.
His death comes two days after Saleh announced he was parting ways with his former Houthi allies, and that he wanted to “turn the page” on relations with the Saudi-led coalition that launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015. The coalition welcomed the move and granted Saleh’s forces air support in fierce battles that later transpired.
Blow to peace
His death deals a blow to hopes of peace in Yemen’s protracted conflict, and seems likely instead to inflame what has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthis.
“Despite what may have seemed like a dramatic victory for Saleh, the Houthis fought back and they fought back hard,” said Yemen analyst at the European Council of Foreign relations and former resident of Sanaa, Adam Baron.
“What you’re seeing now is that the Houthis are potentially poised to really completely consolidate power in Yemen … this makes a peace deal less possible,” he added.
The United Nations on Saturday urged all factions “to urgently come to the negotiations table and to engage in the peace process.”
“We reiterate our position that the political solution is the only way out of a prolonged conflict in Yemen,” Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in a statement.
The former Yemeni president’s defection seemed to signal a breakthrough in the more than two-year war, potentially breaking a stalemate that has sustained the fighting.
But it triggered major upheaval in Sanaa, where Saleh lives. Residents of the Yemeni capital, home to some 5 million people, say that the last 24 hours marked the deadliest of Yemen’s war. Incessant street battles and explosions extended across the city, according to residents, as schools and hospitals shut their doors.
At least 125 people were killed and a further 238 are known to have been injured in the fighting over the last five days, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross told CNN.
The spokeswoman added that the ICRC is urgently trying to supply fuel for generators along with body bags to two of the main hospitals in Sanaa which are “running critically low” of supplies “due to the fact that no commercial imports are coming into the country.”
Thirteen ICRC staff members were relocated on Monday from Sanaa to Djibouti due to “fierce clashes” in Sanaa overnight, and will “continue to work on Yemen from there,” the spokeswoman added.
“You’ve seen a dramatic shift. I think you’re seeing the Houthis effectively switch from seeing Saleh as an ally of convenience to a massive problem,” said Baron.
The United Nations released a stern warning on Friday to the Saudi-led coalition of the catastrophic consequences associated with not fully lifting a blockade it has imposed on Yemen.
Three-quarters of Yemenis need some kind of humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs, international observers have said, with more than 17 million people facing food insecurity, including 8.4 million at risk of starvation.
Saleh: a long-time strongman
Ali Abdullah Saleh rose to power as part of a military coup, becoming president of North Yemen in 1978. After unification in 1990 he became president of all Yemen.
He officially stepped down as president in 2012, less than a year after protests swept through Yemen as part of the Arab Spring. He re-emerged as a major political player in recent years, joining forces with Houthi rebels in their fight against coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia, a former ally.
Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Gulf states against Houthi rebels who ousted the pro-Saudi, internationally-recognized government in Yemen in 2015.
That government’s President, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has been living in Saudi Arabia since the rebels took over the presidential palace early that year.
The UN Human Rights Office has documented more than 13,800 civilian casualties, including more than 5,000 people killed since fighting began. The numbers are believed to be a fraction of the overall death toll.