Yemen’s Houthi rebels say they have killed their former ally, instigator of the civil war Ali Abdullah Saleh – a development likely to plunge the suffering country into further chaos.
The former president was reportedly gunned down by Houthi attackers on Monday after his armoured convoy fled the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa for Marib, the neighbouring loyalist province.
Fighting between the Houthis and forces loyal to Mr Saleh broke out in Sanaa last week after months of rising tensions and allegations that Mr Saleh was seeking to switch sides in the civil war.
The Houthis and Mr Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party were formerly allied against the exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is backed by a powerful Saudi and UAE-led coalition.
In a lengthy speech aired on Houthi television, top official Abdul-Malek al-Houthi said Mr Saleh’s death was the result of his “betrayal and treason”.
Two officials from the GPC as well as Yemen’s exiled interior ministry – which operates from Riyadh – also verified that Mr Saleh had been killed.
Houthi spokesperson Abdel-Rahman al Ahnomi also confirmed on Monday that a grisly video widely circulating on social media shows Mr Saleh’s corpse.
In the footage, reminiscent of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s death at the hands of his own people in 2011, Mr Saleh’s body is being carried in a blanket, blood visible on his shirt.
His eyes are open and glassy and a serious head wound is visible as men cheer and bundle his body into a truck.
Initial reports Mr Saleh had been killed came after his house in the capital was blown up by Houthi mortars.
Clashes in the city in the last few days have killed at least 125 people and injured more than 200. While by Monday evening the fighting appeared to have died down, the death of Mr Saleh opens a new chapter in the bloody conflict.
“The Yemen of today is not the Yemen of yesterday,” Adam Baron, a former Sanaa resident and fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told The Independent.
“What is clear is that the game has changed. The one thing that appears to be certain is more conflict and more suffering for the Yemeni people.”
On Saturday Mr Saleh had said he wanted to “turn the page” on relations with the Saudi-led coalition, leading to fresh hopes for a peace deal in a war which has been at stalemate for almost three years.
However, the remarks ultimately led to renewed intra-rebel fighting in Sanaa, and his own death.
The full extent of the fallout is yet to be understood. Seeking to take advantage of the chaos, President Hadi and his Saudi allies said on Monday that the exiled government would launch a major new offensive to retake the capital once and for all.
Even without Mr Saleh’s loyalists, however, the rebels remain a powerful force in the country’s south, and it is unclear whether such a major operation has any chance of success.
“It’s not clear yet what the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh will mean for the people of Yemen,” Caroline Anning, a Save the Children conflict and humanitarian advocacy advisor, told The Independent from Sanaa.
“Guns have fallen silent for the moment in this neighbourhood, but we can still hear the jets overhead. The reality is, whatever happens to their leaders, Yemen is still in the grip of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
More than 20 million Yemenis – two-thirds of the population – have become reliant on humanitarian help since the civil war erupted in March 2015.
More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict to date as a result of violence, the world’s largest cholera epidemic, starvation and other diseases. Aid agencies warn the true statistics are likely to be much higher.
Western governments, including the UK, have been heavily criticised for selling weapons export licences to Saudi Arabia, which rights groups say are destined for use in the Yemeni war.
A recent three-week-long total blockade on rebel-controlled Yemen by its Saudi neighbours is estimated to have pushed a further 3.2 million people into hunger. It is also feared that gains made in fighting the country’s cholera crisis will be reversed.
While some aid has since been let into Sanaa and the major port of Hodeida, the UN and aid agencies warn that without unfettered access to goods such as fuel, for generators which power hospitals and treat drinking water, the country is still on track for a large-scale famine.
Yemen – already the poorest country of the Arab world before war broke out – has been plagued by unrest since the 2011 Arab Spring protests which ousted Mr Saleh.
The former president ruled over unified Yemen for 30 years until he was eventually forced from office in 2012, handing the reins to his deputy, current President Hadi, after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt.
When the Houthis rebelled against Mr Hadi in 2015, however, Mr Saleh joined them in an attempt to retake power.
The 75-year-old once described running the country as like “dancing on the heads of snakes”.