Saleh’s party has confirmed reports that he was killed in a roadside ambush on Monday outside the capital, Sanaa, after switching sides in the civil war, abandoning his Iran-aligned Houthi allies in favour of the Saudi-led coalition.
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In a lengthy televised speech aired on the Houthi-run Al Masirah TV network, Abdul Malik al-Houthi said his fighters killed Saleh for his “treason” and congratulated Yemenis “on this historic, exceptional and great day in which the conspiracy of betrayal and treason failed, this black day for the forces of the aggression”.
He said the uprising of Saleh’s loyalists against the Houthi group was the greatest threat the Arabian Peninsula country had faced, but that it was defeated in three days.
He said the Houthi group – officially called Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) – would maintain the country’s republican system and would not seek vengeance against Saleh’s party.
“The problem is not with the General People’s Congress (GPC) as a party or with its members,” Houthi said.
The GPC was Yemen’s ruling party under Saleh but is now divided.
Without mentioning Saleh by name, Houthi said that he knew about Saleh’s communication with the coalition and his efforts to turn against the Houthi group.
Houthi also said he had sent several warnings to Saleh.
“We have notified the leader of the traitor and criminal militias to retract, be wise, to stop his militias from continuing committing crimes,” he said.
“Today is the day of the fall of the conspiracy of betrayal and treason. It’s a dark day for the forces of the coalition.”
Houthi also praised a missile launch announced by the group towards the UAE this week as a message against its enemies, advising against foreign investment in the UAE and Saudi Arabia as their campaign in Yemen continues.
The Houthi rebels had similarly fired a missile towards Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh last month, which official media said had been intercepted by the kingdom’s air defence.
“The official story was clear: Saudi forces shot down a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group last month at Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. It was a victory for the Saudis and for the United States, which supplied the Patriot missile defense system,” New York Times said in a report on Monday.
However, evidence analysed by a research team of missile experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, indicate that the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defences and nearly hit its target, Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, according to the report.
The Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the November 5 explosion in Riyadh, saying they fired a long-range ballistic missile that travelled more than 800km over the border with Saudi Arabia.
A spokesman for the rebels told Al Jazeera they launched a Burkan 2-H missile – a Scud-type missile with a range of more than 800km – towards Riyadh.
Videos on social media that evening showed smoke rising from an area near the King Khalid International Airport.
The Middlebury Institute analysis found that the warhead detonated so close to the domestic terminal that people jumped out of their seats.
“The findings show that the Iranian-backed Houthis, once a ragtag group of rebels, have grown powerful enough to strike major targets in Saudi Arabia, possibly shifting the balance of their years-long war,” the New York Times said.
The Houthi rebels, seen at present as the most powerful political faction in Yemen, emerged in the 1990s as a movement to revive the Zaidi Shia traditions of Yemen’s historically dominant northern highlands.
The group originated in the northwestern province of Saada to protest at what their followers said was discrimination against them and their stronghold by the central government.
A crackdown by Saleh, then Yemen’s president, in 2004 led to the killing of founder Hussein al-Houthi, followed by six military campaigns to quell guerrilla warfare in the group’s stronghold of Saada.
His younger brother Abdul Malek took over and stepped up the group’s rhetoric against the government and its alliance with the US.
In 2011, the eruption of protests in Yemen against Saleh‘s long rule expanded the Houthis’ clout beyond Saada. Their populist and anti-corruption rhetoric won them some support in Sunni areas too.
Under a UN-sponsored power transfer deal, Saleh stepped down and was replaced by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his deputy, in 2012.
In July 2014, the Houthis took advantage of an unpopular move by the government to cut fuel subsidies and called for mass demonstrations in Sanaa.
In September, Houthi rebels took control of Sanaa and have since swept across the country.
On Monday, Hadi urged Yemenis to unite against the Houthi rebels, describing them as “Iranian militias”.
Hadi, who has been self-imposed exile in Riyadh in recent past years, delivered his televised speech just hours after the killing of Saleh.
“I call on all Yemenis, in all the provinces, which are still under the rule of these criminal and terrorist militias, to rise up in their face and resist them. And our army will be the victor,” he said.
“We are with you, in the same trench, and with one goal, which is battling for the republic and the revolution, and the expulsion of the Iranian Houthi militias.”