Shi'ite Houthi rebels have seized the central Yemen city of Taiz in a new escalation of the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula country.
The Houthi militias, who are opposed to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a U.S. ally, took control of the city's military airport without a struggle from local authorities late Saturday. They patrolled parts of Taiz Sunday, with Houthi gunmen firing shots into the air to disperse protestors demonstrating against them.
Hours after the takeover, the rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi vowed to send his fighters to the south where Hadi has taken refuge. In a televised speech, he called Hadi a puppet to international and regional powers who want to "import the Libyan model" to Yemen.
He named the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as conspirators against Yemen and other countries in the region.
With the deepening crisis, the United States withdrew all its personnel from Yemen Saturday, a day after suicide bombers killed at least 137 people at two mosques in the rebel-controlled capital, Sana’a.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the temporary relocation was due to “the deteriorating security situation in Yemen.”
About 100 U.S. special forces had been stationed at al-Anad air base in the south, from which the U.S. has launched drones against al-Qaida targets inside Yemen. The State Department said the U.S. would “continue to actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen and have capabilities postured in the area to address them.”
Yemeni security officials say the rebels are backed by supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
As the unrest continues, the U.N. Security Council held emergency meeting on Yemen. The U.N.'s special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned the council that events were pushing the country "to the edge of civil war.''
The security council on Sunday stated its support for Hadi and demanded an end to the hostilities.
Hadi is in the main southern city of Aden, 180 kilometers south of Taiz, where he made his first televised speech Saturday since fleeing house arrest in Sana’a last month.
Hadi demanded the Houthi insurgents leave the government ministries they have occupied, pull their forces out of the capital and return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.
He also denounced what he called a “coup attempt” against him after an unidentified warplane fired a missile last week at the presidential palace in Aden. Hadi was not hurt.
Yemen has sunk into violence and chaos since a popular uprising ousted Saleh, the longtime strongman, in 2012.
Iranian-allied Houthis seized the capital in September and have battled with Sunnis as they try to expand their authority.