Anti-Houthi protesters march during a demonstration to show support to Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the central city of Ibb February 28, 2015. Essam al-Kamaly/REUTERS
Shiite Houthi rebels announced a bounty of $93,000 (20m Yemeni riyals) for the capture of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi on Wednesday as they moved closer to the leader’s southern stronghold of Aden, amid conflicting reports about his whereabouts.
According to Yemeni security and port officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press, Hadi departed from the Aden port with Saudi officials on a boat to an unidentified location. The nearest countries a boat could reach from the port are the East African countries of Somalia and Djibouti.
However, the country’s foreign minister Riad Yassin denied the reports to Reuters, claiming that the country’s leader remains in Aden. Both reports could not be independently confirmed.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that Hadi was no longer at his residence but could not confirm his exact location. “We were in touch with him earlier today,” she said. “He is no longer at his residence. I’m not in a position to confirm any additional details from here about his location.”
State television channel Al-Masirah, controlled by the Houthis, initiated a manhunt for the leader before he fled his residence, announcing the bounty for his arrest. The Yemeni defence ministry’s new agency sent a text message to its subscribers which read: “A reward of 20 million Yemeni riyals will be given to anyone who arrests Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.”
A Houthi spokesman told state TV that the rebels had only sought Hadi’s surrender and were not advancing in order to “occupy” Yemen’s southern regions. “They will be in Aden in few hours,” Mohammed Abdel-Salam told the Al-Masirah channel.
Before reports emerged that the Yemeni president had fled his Aden residence, Houthi militiamen, supported by Yemeni army units, captured the strategic al-Anad air base today, some 60km (37 miles) away from Aden before advancing to within 12 miles (20km) of the city, according to Reuters.
The Houthi advance on the southern city represented the “last stand” for Hadi and raised the prospect of a civil war if he did not surrender, in what is one of the most trying times in the country’s modern history, according to Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s hard to really see him recovering from this. This does appear to be his final stand at this point. The situation is as clear as mud right now but what is clear is that he is on the ropes.”
The deteriorating security situation in the Arab country threatens to draw in regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, a key backer of Hadi, who have amassed heavy artillery on its shared border with Yemen, Reuters reported yesterday. The rise of the Houthis also threatens to pit Riyadh against its regional ally, Iran, who supports the rebels.
Hadi, in a letter seen by Reuters, requested assistance from the UN Security Council for a resolution that would allow “willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression”.
His calls for military assistance from the UN, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the Arab League remain formally unanswered, but the Arab League’s deputy secretary-general confirmed that the body would discuss prospective action on Thursday and Saudi Arabia has hinted that it may act.
On Monday, the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal announced that regional powers would take the measures necessary to prevent Houthi “aggression” in the neighbouring country. However, experts believe that military intervention by regional powers in Yemen would only deepen the crisis it faces.
“My belief is that it is too little, too late [for foreign intervention],” adds Baron. “It would take a tremendous amount of time and military effort for them to really defeat the Houthis.
“That would push Yemen far closer to civil war in my opinion. Foreign intervention will only inflame things further unfortunately.”
Hadi fled to Aden last month after he was released from his house arrest at his home in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, after the rebels took control of the city in January. Diplomatic missions from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait have all evacuated personnel from Aden in reaction to the Houthi advance.
The rebels believe Hadi’s U.S.-backed administration is corrupt and embarked on a southern offensive last summer from their northern heartland of Saada province, reaching Sana’a in September before finally taking control of the capital in January.
An earlier version of this article said that president Hadi had fled by boat but this was later contradicted by other reports and so has been amended to reflect this.