Yemen’s newly appointed Vice President Khaled Bahah, a widely respected figure named this week to shore up the legitimacy of the exiled Saudi-backed government, said Thursday that he hoped to avert a Saudi-led invasion to restore unity to the country.
Arab military exercises planned for Saudi Arabia have raised speculation that Riyadh is considering land operations in Yemen, after three weeks of airstrikes that failed to halt advances by Houthi fighters now in control of most of the country.
President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi named Bahah, a former prime minister and diplomat, as his deputy this week in an attempt to widen support for his government, now exiled to Saudi Arabia.
Bahah is one of the few figures in Yemen whose popularity crosses regional and sectarian lines. Speaking in the Saudi capital Riyadh at his first news conference since taking the post, he said: “We are still hoping that there is no ground campaign announced with the air campaign.”
The Houthis, who have formed an alliance of convenience with army units loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized the capital Sanaa in September and then advanced toward the southern port city of Aden.
With the Houthi advance showing no sign of slowing, the prospect is growing that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies could launch a land war in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni tribal forces took control of a major southern oil terminal after military forces protecting it withdrew from the site, local officials and residents told Reuters.
The tribal group known as Al-Majles al-Ahli, made up of former Al-Qaeda militants, took over the terminal in the city of Al-Shihr in Hadramawt province, according to local officials and residents in the region, adding that there were no clashes between the soldiers and the tribal forces.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda seized control of a major airport, a sea port and an oil terminal in southern city of Mukalla, consolidating its hold on Hadramawt.
Military officials and residents said Al-Qaeda fighters clashed briefly with members of one of Yemen’s largest brigades outside Mukalla. The militants then seized control of the Riyan airport and moved to secure their hold on the city’s main sea port, which is also an oil terminal.
The security officials, requesting anonymity, said the leaders of the brigade in charge of protecting the entire area fled.
Heavy fighting broke out in and around the central Yemeni city of Taiz, residents said, pitting a pro-government army brigade and tribesmen against the Houthis and their allies.
The combat opens up a new front for the Houthis and signals that control over army units by their ally, Saleh, may be weakening.
Bahah called on Yemen’s armed forces to support the “legitimate” Yemeni government in exile, a message clearly aimed at army units still loyal to Saleh.
The Saudi-led airstrikes appear to have led some army units loyal to Saleh to switch sides and back Hadi’s government.
Bahah said a cease-fire must precede any peace deal and no initiatives would be considered until Hadi and his government return to Aden, where they enjoy the most support.
However, there is no sign of compromise on either side.
A senior Houthi official told Reuters he rejected the prospect that Hadi could return to the country, accusing him of “treason.”
Elsewhere, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sought to walk back sharp criticism of the Saudi air campaign against the Houthis.
Abadi had told reporters Wednesday that there was “no logic to the operation at all in the first place.”
But the Iraqi leader told a Washington think tank Thursday that while he was “frank” about the situation in Yemen, “my intention is not to criticize anybody.”
Abadi stressed, though, that decisions and actions taken within the Middle East region by other actors about Yemen “have their fallouts on us.”