As Yemen plunged further into all-out civil war, the country’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen issued a call for Gulf countries to launch military intervention to halt the advance of Shiite Houthi fighters as they pushed south from the capital Sanaa.
Torn between Houthi-controlled Sanaa and the southern port city of Aden where President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has established an alternative government, Yemen is reeling from the co-ordinated twin suicide blasts on mosques in the capital that killed more than 142 people on Friday.
“We have addressed both the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and the UN for the need of a no-fly zone and banning the use of warplanes at the airports controlled by the Houthis,” Mr Yaseen told al-Sharq al-Aswat newspaper on Sunday.
Tensions rose even higher when Houthi rebels – who say they have long felt marginalised in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country – took control of key installations in Yemen’s third city of Taiz.
Backed by troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Houthi militants now control the international airport in Taiz, the city that was home to Yemen’s first protests that led to the overthrow of Saleh during the 2011 Arab revolutions.
UN mediator Jamal Benomar warned an emergency session of the Security Council held on Sunday that Yemen had been was on a “rapid downward spiral”.
Describing the conflict’s “worrying sectarian tones and deepening north-south divisions”, Mr Benomar said “events in Yemen are leading the country away from political settlement and to the edge of civil war”.
But, he said, it would be “an illusion to think that the Houthis could mount an offensive and succeed in taking control of the entire country [and] it would be equally false to think that President Hadi could assemble sufficient forces to liberate the country from the Houthis.
“Any side that would want to push the country in either direction would be inviting a protracted conflict in the vein of an Iraq-Libya-Syria combined scenario,” he said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Arab countries were prepared take measures, including offering military aid, to protect the region against “aggression” by Houthi rebels if a peaceful solution cannot be found.
But this is not merely a conflict between the Houthis, backed by the region’s Shiite powerhouse Iran, and the forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour, backed by Iran’s bitter rival Saudi Arabia.
Experts warn that the separate and growing Sunni rebellion in the south, driven by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula(AQAP), is also pushing the country closer to a civil war.
Combined with a growing humanitarian crisis affecting 61 per cent of country’s 24 million people, the conflict is now threatening regional and international security, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon warned.
Militants professing loyalty to the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for Friday’s devastating blasts in Sanaa, and AQAP released a statement condemning the attacks, although there is still some doubt as to which group is responsible.
The security situation in Yemen has been deteriorating ever since the Houthis took control of Sanaa in late September, eventually dissolving the parliament and placing President Hadi under house arrest.
He managed to flee to Aden in February, but the country has continued to be rocked by deadly violence and protests despite a UN push to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the sectarian conflict.
On Saturday, Mr Hadi gave his first televised address since fleeing Sanaa, describing theHouthi actions as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy”.
The advance of Houthi militants towards the Sunni-dominated south, which is an al-Qaeda stronghold and a natural bolthole for any fledgling Islamic State loyalists, has raised international concern even higher.
Both the United Sates and Britain evacuated their remaining special forces and diplomatic personnel from Yemen over the weekend, as Al-Qaeda militants edged closer to Aden.
“For years Yemen has defied all the odds and proved wrong those who said it was on the brink of civil war and about to collapse,” Farea al-Muslimi, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Centre told Reuters. “But we may have run out of miracles.”