Defiant Saleh supporters flex muscles in Sanaa rally

Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh (center) waves after giving a speech addressing his supporters during a rally as his General People’s Congress party marks 35 years since its founding, at Sabaeen Square in the capital Sanaa, Thursday. — AFP

HUNDREDS of thousands of Yemenis descended on Sanaa Thursday in a major show of force for ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose alliance with the country’s Houthi rebels has been shaken by mutual distrust.

Tensions have been rising between Saleh and his one-time foe, rebel chief Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, who in 2014 joined ranks in a shock alliance that drove the government out of the capital and into the southern province of Aden.

The rally marking 35 years since the founding of Saleh’s Arab nationalist General People’s Congress sends out a signal that the strongman remains a force to be reckoned with.

Crowds filled the 4-sq. km square and poured into the streets of the capital, waving the blue flag of the GPC and carrying pictures of the 75-year-old Saleh.

Saleh ruled Yemen with an iron fist for more than three decades before stepping down in 2012 after a bloody year-long uprising.

But the strongman retained the loyalty of some of the best-equipped units in the military and later joined forces with the Houthis, after they overran the capital in 2014.

The ensuing civil war has killed thousands and brought the Arabian Peninsula country to the brink of famine.

Saleh’s supporters had travelled to Sanaa from across the impoverished country, camping out in Sabaeen Square overnight ahead of the rally.

An AFP reporter in Sanaa said the Houthis had set up checkpoints at the main entrances to the city.

But they did nothing to stop the demonstrators from reaching the square, where the rebels had also deployed but did not interfere with the rally.

Saleh — who survived the Arab Spring protests that saw a string of his peers ousted from Egypt to Libya —appeared in person at the rally and gave a brief speech behind bulletproof glass, surrounded by heavily armed guards.

“We are political pioneers with a solid anchor, and we have been facing conspiracies against us since 2011,” he told the cheering crowd, referring to the start of protests in Sanaa that eventually led to his resignation.

Saleh said he was ready to deploy “tens of thousands of fighters to the frontlines”, on condition the rebel-led government train and pay them.

Analysts have said the rally serves in part as public protest against the Iran-backed Houthis, who with Saleh have run the capital since 2014.

The rebels have rapidly risen in a parallel government in Sanaa, and now hold clout in the city’s economy, defense and educational ministries

Former troops and civil servants in the parallel rebel-run government have not been paid for months.

Saleh’s second-in-command in the General People’s Congress, Aref Al-Zouka, on Thursday criticized the Houthis for financial mismanagement and corruption, saying the party refused to be “allies for show”.

A war of words between Saleh and Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, whose rebel group have historically clashed with Saleh’s troops, has escalated in the past week. The two have publicly accused each other of treason, with Saleh hinting his allies were merely “a militia” and the rebels warning the former president he would “bear the consequences” of the insult. — AFP