Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh rallied thousands of supporters in the capital Sanaa on Thursday in a show of force amid an unusual public rift within the alliance fighting a Saudi-led coalition for control of the country.
Fighters loyal to the armed Houthi movement, which runs northern Yemen together with Saleh, decried him as “evil” a day earlier and condemned his description of them as a “militia”.
The Houthi leadership recommended the announcement of a state of emergency and suspension of all “party activity”, telling Saleh’s supporters any mass gatherings should be made on battlefronts, not in public squares.
Thursday’s gathering went ahead, regardless.
“We are ready to fill the fronts with thousands of fighters and they are ready to go,” said Saleh, wearing a dark suit and speaking from behind protective glass as armed men in fatigues stood guard.
The tactical alliance between Saleh and the Houthis has often appeared fragile, with both groups suspicious of each other’s ultimate motives and sharing little ideological ground.
The two factions have traded barbs on responsibility for challenges such as unemployment and mounting hunger after 2-1/2 years of fighting the internationally recognized government, based in the south and backed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015 to restore the government to power in the capital Sanaa. But the conflict, which has killed at least 10,000 people, is in stalemate.
Big switches of loyalty are a feature of Yemen’s byzantine political landscape, particularly since 2011 “Arab Spring” unrest which led to Saleh’s fall in 2012.
Demonstrators, gathered since the early morning in Sabeen Square in central Sanaa to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the formation of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC), waved flags, signs and pictures of the man who remains one of Yemen’s most powerful politicians and military figures.
“With our spirit and our blood, we sacrifice for you oh Yemen!” they cheered, television footage showed.
Saleh promptly left the square after speaking and shortly after heavy gunfire rang out nearby, but his supporters said it was celebratory and denied reports of clashes with Houthi fighters.