Al Mukalla, Yemen – As the conflict in Yemen between beleaguered President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel group escalates, there are growing speculations that the Houthis may try to take the southern city of Aden where Hadi is based.
On Sunday, Houthis seized the airport in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city and a strategic entry point to Aden. Military sources in Yemen said troops loyal to Hadi and southern paramilitary forces had deployed in Lahj province, north of Aden, in anticipation of a possible advance by the Houthis.
In his first speech since fleeing Sanaa for Aden in February, Hadi boasted that the Yemeni government’s flag would eventually be hoisted in the Houthis’ stronghold of Saada province.
Houthi leaders responded by calling for a general mobilisation [with the aim of rallying forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who did not take part in recent fighting] and called on Yemenis to fight against the “al-Qaeda-allied” president, in reference to Hadi.
“We are heading to a bloody confrontation,” said Abdul Bari Taher, an independent political analyst.
The Houthis stormed the capital Sanaa last September and now controls a sizable chunk of the country.
Although Saleh stepped down in 2012 following Arab Spring-inspired protests, he has been accused of fanning the flames of conflict by using his leverage over certain military units that helped extend Houthis’ reach to many areas.
“What is happening in Yemen is a big disaster created by some forces [Saleh] that want to rule the country again,” Taher told Al Jazeera.
that want to rule the country again. They are determined to destroy the country by using the extreme limits of terrorism and death to finish the remaining structure of the state”]
“They are determined to destroy the country by using the extreme limits of terrorism and death to finish the remaining structure of the state.”
Hadi, Saleh’s deputy for 18 years, came to power in 2012 as part of an agreement on political transition put forward by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But, despite international support, Hadi has been unable to restore security and stability to the country.
Hadi deployed army troops and allied tribesmen in Aden and Lahj governorates to fight the Houthis. Meanwhile, the Houthis amassed their forces in Taiz province neighbouring Aden. “The militias are replacing the state in Yemen,” explained Taher.
According to military analysts, the mobilisation of forces in Taiz during the last three days is a clear indication of Houthis’ plan to advance toward Aden.
“The Houthis have massive military reinforcements in Taiz province and they have increased the dose of propaganda against Hadi,” said Thabet Hussein, a retired army Brigadier. “They [Houthis] are seriously considering advancing to Aden, Hadi’s power base,” Hussein told Al Jazeera.
When the Yemeni president arrived in Aden, Hussein said, Houthis thought that [Saleh] would be able to overthrow him through Abdulhafiz al-Saqqaf, the chief security of Aden’s Special Security Forces, one of the army’s elite forces, who rejected Hadi’s orders to step down
“As they [Houthis and Saleh] are assembling forces in Taiz, there is evidence that they are thinking of pushing into the south and they are gauging the cost,” said the retired army officer.
Nearly a day after Hadi’s forces defeated [al-Saqqaf] defected security unit in Aden on March 19, al-Qaeda fighters briefly captured the city of Huta in Lahj province. After executing more than 25 Yemeni government soldiers, the fighters left.
In 2011, al-Qaeda capitalised on the Yemeni government’s struggle with its opponents during the nation-wide protests and controlled many cities in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa.
“What happened to Lahj is reminiscent of the Abyan scenario in 2011, when the local authorities and army troops handed over cities to al-Qaeda,” said one military analyst.
To avoid the Abyan scenario, pro-Hadi army officials, including Minister of Defense Mahmoud Al Subihi, quickly sent troops to Lahj. “Some army units and popular committees moved quickly to foil that plot that intended to create rationales for invading the south,” Hussein said.
For the third consecutive day, the rebels have encircled Taiz airport with armed vehicles to protect hundreds of airborne soldiers and military equipment.
Hundreds of other soldiers were sent from Sanaa by land, according to security officials in the province who spoke to Al Jazeera.
But despite the Houthis’ string of military successes, Hussein said that any Houthi incursion into the south would be costly and difficult because of the region’s strong support for Hadi.
“They know that [southern separatists], tribes and army in the south are backing Hadi and ready to fight,” he said