SANAA, Yemen — Heavy airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition rocked Yemen’s capital Tuesday, striking Sanaa’s densely populated neighborhoods in apparent retaliation for the killing of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Shiite rebels who control the city.
Residents reported heavy bombing, and a U.N. official said at least 25 airstrikes hit the city over the past 24 hours. The Saudi-led coalition battling the rebels had thrown its support behind Saleh just hours before his death, as the longtime strongman’s alliance with the rebels unraveled.
The U.N. Security Council called on all sides to de-escalate the upsurge in violence and re-engage with U.N. political efforts to achieve a cease-fire without preconditions. The council called the deteriorating humanitarian situation “dire,” saying Yemen “stands at the brink of catastrophic famine.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that despite the intensified fighting, humanitarian flights, including by the U.N. and the Red Cross, resumed to Sanaa on Tuesday morning.
Saleh’s body, which had appeared in a video by the militias with a gaping head wound, was taken to a rebel-controlled military hospital. A rebel leader, speaking at a rally in Sanaa, said Saleh’s wounded sons had been hospitalized, without providing further details.
The gruesome images from the previous day sent shockwaves among Saleh’s followers — a grisly end recalling that of his contemporary, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, in 2011.
Saleh’s son Salah said on Facebook Tuesday that he won’t receive condolences for his father’s death until “after avenging the blood” of the former leader. Salah also urged his father’s followers to fight their former allies, the Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit meanwhile denounced Saleh’s “assassination” at the hands of “criminal militias,” and warned of a further escalation of the war and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. A spokesman quoted Aboul-Gheit as saying the international community should label the Houthis a “terrorist” organization.
“All means should be tackled for the Yemeni people to get rid of this black nightmare,” he said.
Iran, which supports the Houthis but denies arming them, welcomed Saleh’s killing, saying it had put an end to a Saudi conspiracy. “He got what he deserved,” Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
Saleh’s slaying likely gives the rebels the upper hand in the clashes in Sanaa, which ended after his death, while also dashing the hopes of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government that the former president’s recent split with the Iranian-allied Houthis would have weakened them.
Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, a rebel leader, said Tuesday that “some sons” of Saleh have been hospitalized, without providing further details. Speaking before the large rally, al-Houthi said that Saleh was “deceived… we hadn’t hoped for what happened.”
The end of the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh might have tilted the three-year civil war in favor of Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition.
But with Saleh’s forces seemingly in disarray, it was not immediately clear if the Saudi-led coalition would be able to turn the split to its advantage. Many Sanaa residents remained hunkered down in their homes, fearing the rebels and the Saudi airstrikes, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety.
Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, told reporters that U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council that the killing of Saleh and others was “an adverse development” that will “constitute a considerable change to the political dynamics in Yemen.”
Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades until an Arab Spring uprising forced him to step down in 2012. He later allied with the Houthi rebels hoping to exploit their strength to return to power. That helped propel Yemen into the ruinous civil war that has spread hunger and disease among its 28 million people.
Houthi officials said their fighters killed Saleh as he tried to flee the capital for his nearby hometown of Sanhan. The Houthis’ top leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, said Saleh paid the price for his “treason,” accusing him of betraying their alliance to side with the Saudi-led coalition.
The Houthis and Saleh’s forces began fighting each other in Sanaa last week. The coalition has been striking Houthi positions, hoping that Saleh’s loyalists might allow forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to return to the capital.
From the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he has been in self-imposed exile for most of the war, Hadi tried on Monday to rally Saleh’s allies to keep up the fight against the Houthis.
When Saleh left power, he stayed in the country and kept the loyalty of many military commanders, splitting the armed forces between himself and Hadi. Saleh’s forces were key to helping the Houthis overrun Sanaa in 2014, and then much of the north and center of the country.
But over the past year, the Houthis appear to have undermined Saleh, wooing away some of his commanders. That seems to have pushed Saleh into flirting with the coalition, ultimately leading to the breakdown of the rebel alliance.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that at least 125 people had been killed and some 240 wounded in Sanaa since the fighting began last week. Witnesses said the bodies of slain civilians and fighters littered the streets as ambulances were unable to reach them.
Jamie McGoldrick, of U.N. aid agency OCHA, said civilians in Sanaa are “emerging from their houses after five days being locked down, basically prisoners,” to seek safety, medical care, fresh water and other survival needs. Speaking to reporters by phone from Sanaa, he said that “at the same time, people are bracing themselves for more.”