CAIRO - Fighters loyal to internationally recognized Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have pushed Houthi militants out of the center of Aden and control most of the southern port city.
Southern Yemen resistance fighters exchanged automatic weapons fire and mortar rounds with Houthi militants in the center of Aden early Friday. The Houthi fighters withdrew from most of the center of the city by midday, including the presidential palace.
The governor of Aden, Abdulaziz bin Habtoor, told Arab media Friday that “southern resistance fighters,” loyal to President Hadi, now control 95 percent of central Aden.
Saudi coalition military spokesman General Ahmed Asiri told journalists the Houthis were trying to show the media that they controlled parts of the city, but were being pushed out:
He says that the Houthis have been playing a game of cat and mouse, trying to gain points with the media by moving around the city and being photographed in various places, including the presidential palace, but the popular resistance fighters were pushing them back, even though they still control a few strongholds in the city.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida militants captured a Yemeni military camp in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout province, forcing soldiers to flee. Reports say tribal fighters from Hadramout were “heading to the area to try and push them back.” Sky News Arabia, quoting witnesses, indicated that al-Qaida fighters also captured the port of Mukalla.
Al-Qaida militants stormed a prison in Mukalla early Thursday, freeing close to 300 prisoners. The ongoing conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has left a vacuum in parts of the country, especially along the southern coast, which al-Qaida is trying to fill.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, tells VOA that there are pockets of Salafi fighters with ties to al-Qaida in several regions not far from Aden:
He says al-Qaida is trying to profit from the prevailing chaos in Yemen to gain territory, as military forces loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh are having friction on the ground with the Houthi rebels, as well as air attacks by the Saudi-led coalition. He adds that Saudi officials are considering bombing the group's positions, in addition to Houthi rebel forces.
Amateur video showed Saudi-led coalition planes airdropping light weapons and ammunition to southern fighters in Aden during the day Friday. Other video showed the fighters loading crates of the airdropped ammunition onto trucks inside the city.
A young Houthi fighter told the group's al-Maseera TV that Saudi warplanes fired around a dozen missiles at Aden's main airport, setting a plane on fire. Amateur video showed a plane burning on the tarmac. It was not clear if the Houthis still controlled the airport.
All options open
The Saudi-led coalition has relied primarily on air strikes in recent days to degrade the military capabilities of the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former Saleh.
But Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, told VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi air power could be replaced by boots on the ground if conditions in Aden worsen.
“We don’t have formal Saudi troops in Aden,” the envoy said. “The issue of having ground troops is always something that is on the table, but the decision will be made depending on the circumstances and the need.”
Jubair said the Saudi objective is to restore Yemen’s legitimate government and protect its people from a takeover by what he referred to as a “radical group” allied with Iran and Hezbollah as a part of “a foreign-driven agenda that seeks to divide Yemen and create instability in the Arabian Peninsula."
He said countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council had earlier left the door open for Houthi rebels to participate in the political process, but they reneged on their agreements, choosing instead to operate as a militia outside of the state.
Al-Jubair accuses former Yemeni president Saleh of playing a destructive role from behind the scenes, using the influence he has within the country’s armed forces to persuade military commanders to side with Houthis in their drive to take over major Yemeni cities.
“We don’t believe that President Saleh has any role to play in Yemen’s future,” al-Jubair said.
In Ankara, Turkey, visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif indicated that his country would “do everything possible to defend the security of Saudi Arabia.”
At the same time, Pakistan evacuated nearly 200 of its citizens from Yemen Friday.
Several Saudi border posts have come under attack from inside Yemen during the past several days. Pakistan said Thursday that it was supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Mohamed Elshinnawi contributed to this report.