Former leader killed in grenade and gun attack, Houthis say, as death is also confirmed by Saleh’s own political party.
The death of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh raises doubts about the future of the war-torn country, as a Saudi-led coalition’s fight against Houthi rebels will likely intensify, analysts say.
Saleh was killed on Monday by Houthi fighters – his former allies – and his death is considered a “very big blow” to his forces, said Hakim al-Masmari, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post.
“His house has been under siege for the last two days and today they attacked the house. He escaped … he was found in a vehicle that had clashed with Houthi checkpoint forces,” he told Al Jazeera from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
“This is where he was killed along with a number of his senior aides.”
Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades and played a pivotal role in the country’s ongoing civil war, had called on the Saudi-led coalition to lift the siege it imposed on Yemen in a televised speech on Saturday.
He also formally broke ties with the Houthis, saying he was open to dialogue with the military coalition that has been at war with his rebel alliance for more than two years.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia, along with other Sunni Muslim countries, militarily intervened in Yemen to reinstate the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was overthrown by the Houthi group the year before.
Saleh’s fragile alliance with the Houthi leadership was largely seen as an integrational one, bringing together his General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the Houthi Ansar Allah faction, which were at odds with each other in the past.
Masmari noted Saleh’s death may lead the Saudi-led coalition to further escalate its military operations.
Since the recent split, the coalition has intensified air strikes on Houthi-controlled areas in Sanaa, targeting the abandoned airport and ministry of the interior.
Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group’s Middle East programme director, said the breakdown of the Houthi-Saleh alliance will “increase fragmentation and conflict by adding layers of revenge”.
“Saleh’s GPC, a critical party of the centre, could fracture further, with many joining anti-Houthi fighters,” Hiltermann told Al Jazeera.
“No one wins.”
The latest development is a major setback for the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a key player, he said.
“They were staking their hopes on Saleh subduing the Houthis, but things seem to be turning out differently. It shows the bankruptcy of their military approach to the war,” Hiltermann said.
Though no official steps were taken to withdraw from the conflict, Hiltermann says Riyadh currently has “fewer options for a negotiated exit.
“If they decide to double down on air bombardments, it is civilians who will suffer – on top of the humanitarian catastrophe we have already seen in Yemen,” he said.
The rebel infighting comes as residents of the partially blockaded Sanaa are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
The Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade in October on the Arabian Peninsula country, where nearly 80 percent of residents need humanitarian aid to survive.
Last week, amid mounting international pressure over the suffering of millions of Yemenis, some humanitarian relief was allowed to enter Yemen.
Andreas Krieg, a political analyst at King’s College London, said the “short term in Yemen will be a state of insecurity worse than before.
“Saleh was an integrator. The Houthis killing him takes the glue out of the equation,” Krieg told Al Jazeera.
Though it remains unclear if alliances on the ground will shift, Krieg believes it is bound to happen.
“Coalition bombing was bad enough, now there will be a new level of civil war,” he said.
Saudi Arabia wants to pull out of the “expensive” conflict, but now there is “no way out of the war for the coalition”.
Saleh’s death leaves wide open the question of a successor to lead the GCP.
Analysts question whether his followers will eventually pledge allegiance to the Houthis, or if they will regroup and ally themselves with leading figures of Saleh’s party.
His son, Ahmed Abdullah Saleh, a former commander of the Yemeni army’s Republican Guard, has been residing in the UAE for more than four years.
Saleh’s nephew, Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, is an army general who has acted as Saleh’s military adviser for years.
According to Masmari, Tareq is expected to take the lead of military operations against the Houthi rebels.
Gamal Gasim, associate professor of Middle East Studies at Grand Valley State University, said Sanaa’s security may remain stable if the rebels expedite their control over the city.
However, if Tareq succeeds in rallying support of the Republican Guard as well as Saleh’s own Sinhan tribes, chaos in Sanaa could prevail.
“It remains to be seen if Saleh’s son, Ahmad Saleh … would go back to Yemen and assume leadership of what’s left of his father’s forces,” said Gasim, noting this would require the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Timing here is critical. If they want to succeed in that effort, they must make their move within a window of 48 hours.”