Massive rally in Yemen’s Sanaa marks war anniversary

Ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh calls for peace talks with Saudi Arabia as tens of thousands gather in Yemeni capital.

Yemen protests
Supporters of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh attend a rally marking one year of the war [Hani Mohammed/AP]

Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of the capital Sanaa on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the war between a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Iran-allied fighters who had overthrown the government.

The gathering, one of the biggest in Yemen since mass protests in 2011 forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, took place ahead of a ceasefire and UN-sponsored peace talks next month.

Saleh, an ally of the rebel Houthi group, made a rare appearance at the gathering, his first since the war began, offering an olive branch to the coalition.

Saleh is the ultimate survivor of the Arab Spring

by Peter Salisbury, Yemen analyst

Yemen analyst and journalist, Peter Salisbury, told Al Jazeera that more people turned up at the rally to voice their opposition to the Saudis, rather than to support Saleh or the Houthis.

“We extend a hand of peace, the peace of the brave, for the direct talks with the Saudi regime without a return to the (UN) Security Council, which is incapable of resolving anything,” Saleh told the crowd.

Salisbury said the Houthis’ decision to enter into talks with Saudis has upset Saleh.

“There is division between his loyalists and Houthis,” he said.

The UN envoy announced this week that the warring parties had agreed to a cessation of hostilities starting at midnight on April 10 followed by peace talks in Kuwait from April 18 as part of a fresh push to end the crisis following two rounds of failed talks last year.

The coalition joined the war to try to stop the Houthis from taking control of Yemen and to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.

Trouble ahead

The West-backed Hadi was ousted after Houthi forces took control of Sanaa in September 2014.

Foreign forces intervened on the side of fighters loyal to Hadi six months later and are trying to prevent the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh from taking full control of the country.

“Saleh is the ultimate survivor of the Arab Spring,” Salisbury said. “He was pushed out in 2001, but managed to really remove many of his rivals from the north of the country and backed the Houthis in an attempt to militarily take the entire country by force.” 

Despite a year of conflict, the Houthis maintain control of Sanaa, while Hadi loyalists are based in the southern port of Aden.

The security vacuum in the country has created a space for al-Qaeda, which controls large chunks of territory in the southeast, Salisbury said.

“Even if the Saudi-led campaign can be ended, there is lot of trouble ahead,” he said.

The UN says almost 6,500 people have been killed – around half of them civilians – and at least 30,000 have been wounded.

UN agencies report that more than 21 million people – about 82 percent of the population – need some kind of humanitarian aid or protection. 

More than two and a half million people have been forced from their homes.

Despite a year of conflict, the Houthis maintain control of the capital, Sanaa [Hani Mohammed/AP]
Despite a year of conflict, the Houthis maintain control of the capital, Sanaa [Hani Mohammed/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera