Yemen’s Saleh: A political murder mystery

Killing has triggered an avalanche of claims and counterclaims regarding exact circumstances of former leader’s killing.

FILE PHOTO: Yemen''s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh attends a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the General People''s Congress party, which he is leading, in Sanaa

The violent and unexpected death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni leader, has put an end to his chequered political career spanning nearly four decades.

It has also touched off an avalanche of claims and counterclaims regarding the circumstances of his killing.

The regional news media is rife with speculation amid multiple theories of how and where Saleh was killed.

Nothing is definitive at this point, which is partly due to the complex nature of the civil war in Yemen and because of the shifting alignments and battle lines in the Arabian Peninsula country, where loyalties are often defined by the tribe and the place that one belongs to.

The only confirmed piece of information so far is that the 75-year-old Saleh was killed near Sanaa by Houthi rebels, most probably with a bullet to the back of his head that shattered his brain and parts of his skull.

The gunshot also caused Saleh’s brain matter to splatter on the flowery blanket his body was seen wrapped in.

Several others were killed with Saleh on Monday, according to local and regional media reports. These included his personal security chief, Colonel Ali Hussein Hamidi, his party colleagues Aref Zouka and Yaser al-Awaadi, and a number of other people.

Allies turned assailants

Even by Yemen’s standards, the days leading up to Saleh’s death were turbulent and confusing.

On Saturday, he had turned on the Houthi rebels he had been backing for the past several years, calling for dialogue with Saudi Arabia, once his patron, more recently his enemy.

On Monday, Saleh’s former rebel allies ambushed and killed him.

Al Jazeera spoke to Muhamad al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political bureau who provided an hour-by-hour timeline of events that culminated to Saleh’s death.

Bukhaiti said Saleh was trying to negotiate with the Houthi rebels the night before he was killed.

He said Saleh had invited several mediators – including Bukhaiti’s father, Naser al-Bukhaiti, and Sheikh Ismail Al Ojaili – the night before his death in an effort to lift the Houthi siege of his home and reach some kind of a settlement.

Saleh and his supporters were holed up in several residential compounds in Sanaa at that point in time.

According to Bukhaiti, the negotiations conducted through the mediators began at about 4pm local time on Sunday and continued throughout the night and into the early hours of Monday.

Between 8am and 9am local time on Monday, the negotiations came to a halt because the Houthi side insisted that he surrender in exchange for sparing his life and the lives of others.

The Houthi side then offered Saleh a last-minute deal under which he could stay under house arrest in exchange for ending the infighting and, for all practical purposes, leave the Houthi group as the sole power with control over Sanaa and large expanses of Yemeni territory.

Saleh is said to have rejected the offer.

Multiple sources in Yemen told Al Jazeera that Saleh might have made an arrangement with Saudi Arabia that would have guaranteed him a place in Yemen’s political future if he defected to the kingdom’s camp.

Accused of treason

The Houthi leadership had accused Saleh of “treason” because of his talks with the Saudis, who the Iran-aligned group says are waging a war of aggression, along with the UAE, against the Yemeni people.

The Saudi-led military coalition’s campaign has been given much of the blame for a humanitarian disaster that has left tens of thousands of civilians dead or wounded in impoverished Yemen.

Bukhaiti told Al Jazeera that Saleh’s flirtation with the Saudis and the Emiratis in the days before his death was “his last dance”.

While Houthi officials, as well Saleh’s party, have said that Saleh was killed on the road, his son Ahmad Saleh has issued a statement mourning his father’s passing and stating that his father was killed in his residence by the rebels.

Saleh’s nephew, Tariq Saleh, who heads Yemen’s special forces, has not been heard from since Monday’s events. He has gone missing along with other sons of Saleh.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Saleh, who is the former commander of the Republican Guards and the current Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, has pledged to “fight on against the enemies of the homeland”.

Ahmad Saleh’s allegation is supported by several Al Jazeera sources in Yemen, who say Saleh was killed inside his residential compound along with his top advisers and party leaders.

As proof, these sources cited the images of Saleh’s face and body circulating online and the news media, adding that the men who killed Saleh were probably able to pinpoint his location from the fact that he revealed his whereabouts when he decided to negotiate with the Houthis.

They said Saleh’s face and head appeared to have been cleaned up after he was fatally shot in the back of the head, and also point to the absence of bloodstains on his face.

The sources further said the flowery blanket in which Saleh’s body was wrapped was something not readily available on the road or carried around by fighters in Yemen.

All of this suggested that Saleh was killed inside his residential compound at about 9am local time on Monday morning during heavy fighting between his security guards and a numerically superior Houthi force.

Armoured convoy

Another source, as well as a high-ranking Saleh supporter, told Al Jazeera that the former president was killed at about 9:30am local time on Monday inside his compound and his body was later transferred to Sanaa military hospital.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify that claim.

Those who advance the ambush theory, including Saleh’s own General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the Houthis, say that Saleh was fleeing in an armoured convey when was attacked and killed.

Houthi celebrations on Thursday in Sanaa followed Saleh's killing [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]
Houthi celebrations on Thursday in Sanaa followed Saleh’s killing [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

The Houthis claim that Saleh decided on Monday morning between 8am and 9am local time to leave his compound in an armoured military convoy heading out of Sanaa.

The Houthis version of events is that Saleh fled Sanaa on his way to his own tribal area of Sinhan, south of the capital, which takes about an hour to drive in normal conditions.

The GPC, known as al-Moatamar in Arabic, issued a relatively mild statement announcing the death of Saleh without going into the details, neither denouncing his killing nor issuing any demands.

“Al-Moatamar announces the death of leader Ali Abdullah Saleh after his convoy was targeted along with others leaders in Jihshaan area of Sinhan district after the unfortunate events that took place,” it said.

Several Yemeni sources in Sanaa and London told Al Jazeera that the Houthis stormed Saleh’s compound sometime on Sunday night, arrested him and his party leaders and advisers, and then carried out executions.

Their account contradicts the official Houthi story that Saleh was killed while fleeing Sanaa.

Bukhaiti, the Houthi political bureau member, declined to comment on the claim that the Houthi leadership had already taken a decision to kill Saleh.

He said the group’s aim was to defeat Saleh’s forces after he decided to switch sides in their battles against the Saudi-led coalition.

He also declined to say if the Houthi leadership had instructed its foot soldiers to keep Saleh alive.

Whatever the real story of Saleh’s death, one thing is for certain: Saleh’s fate had been sealed by the Houthi rebels in the hours leading up to the fateful moment of his killing.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter @Ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera