YEMEN’S embattled president has fled his palace in Aden for an undisclosed location as Shiite rebels offered a cash bounty for his capture and arrested his defence minister.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi left just hours after the rebels’ own TV station said they seized an airbase where US troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against al-Qaida militants. The airbase is only 35 miles away from Aden.
Witnesses said they saw a convoy of presidential vehicles leaving Mr Hadi’s palace, located at the top of a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Presidential officials said Mr Hadi was in an operations room overseeing his forces’ response. They declined to say where that facility was located.
The advance of the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, threatens to plunge the Arab world’s poorest country into a civil war that could draw in its Gulf neighbours. Already, Mr Hadi has asked the United Nations to authorise a foreign military intervention in the country.
Yemen’s state TV broadcaster, controlled by Houthis, made an offer of some £67,000 for Mr Hadi’s capture. Officials, meanwhile, said that the country’s defence minister, Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and his top aide were arrested in the southern city of Lahj, where fighting with Houthi forces was ongoing.
Already, military officials said militias and military units loyal to Mr Hadi had “fragmented,” speeding the rebel advance. They said the rebels were fighting Mr Hadi’s allied forces on five different fronts.
The reported Houthi takeover of the airbase took place after hours-long clashes between rival forces. The US recently evacuated some 100 soldiers, including Special Forces commandos, from the base after al-Qaida briefly seized a nearby city. Britain also evacuated soldiers.
The base was crucial in the US drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which the United States considers to be the most dangerous branch of the terror group.
US and European military advisers there also offered logistical help in its fight against al-Qaida, which holds territory in eastern Yemen and has claimed it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris.
US operations against the militants have been scaled back dramatically amid the chaos in Yemen. The takeover of the base is part of the wider offensive led by Houthis, backed by loyalists of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh within Yemen’s armed forces.
The Houthis, in the aftermath of suicide bombings in Sanaa last week that killed at least 137 people, ordered a general mobilisation of its forces. The group’s leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, vowed to send his forces to the south in the context of fighting al-Qaida and militant groups.
The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September and have been advancing south alongside forces loyal to Saleh.
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