SANAA, Yemen — Heavy airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition rocked Yemen’s capital on Tuesday, striking Sanaa’s densely populated neighborhoods in apparent retaliation for the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Shiite rebels who control the city.
Residents reported heavy bombing, and a U.N. official said that at least 25 airstrikes hit the capital over the past 24 hours. The Saudi-led coalition battling the rebels had thrown its support behind Saleh just hours before his death, as the longtime strongman’s alliance with the rebels unraveled.
Saleh’s body, seen with a gaping head wound in a video circulated online , was taken to a rebel-controlled military hospital. A rebel leader, speaking to a mass rally in Sanaa, said that Saleh’s wounded sons had been hospitalized, but did not provide further details.
The gruesome images from the previous day sent out shock waves among Saleh’s followers — a grisly end recalling that of his contemporary, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, in 2011.
Saleh’s son Salah Saleh said Tuesday on Facebook that he will not receive condolences for his father’s death until “after avenging the blood” of the former leader. Salah Saleh also urged his father’s followers to fight their former allies, the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit, meanwhile, denounced Saleh’s “assassination” at the hands of “criminal militias,” and warned of a further escalation of the war and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. A spokesman quoted Aboul Gheit as saying that the international community should label the Houthis a “terrorist” organization.
“All means should be tackled for the Yemeni people to get rid of this black nightmare,” he said.
Iran, which supports the Houthis but denies arming them, welcomed Saleh’s killing, saying it had put an end to a Saudi conspiracy. “He got what he deserved,” Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Tasnim News Agency.
The end of the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh might have tilted the three-year-old civil war in favor of Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition.
But with Saleh’s forces seemingly in disarray, it was not immediately clear whether the Saudi-led coalition would be able to turn the split to its advantage. Many Sanaa residents remained hunkered down in their homes, fearing the rebels and the Saudi airstrikes.
Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades until an Arab Spring uprising forced him to step down in 2012. He later allied with the Houthi rebels, hoping to exploit their strength to return to power. That helped propel Yemen into the ruinous civil war, which has spread hunger and disease among its 28 million people.
Houthi officials said that their fighters killed Saleh as he tried to flee the capital for his nearby home town of Sanhan. The Houthis’ top leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, said Saleh paid the price for his “treason,” accusing him of betraying their alliance to side with the Saudi-led coalition.
The Houthis and Saleh’s forces began fighting each other in Sanaa last week. The coalition has been striking Houthi positions, hoping that Saleh’s loyalists might allow forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to return to the capital. From the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he has been in self-imposed exile for most of the war, Hadi tried Monday to rally Saleh’s allies to keep up the fight against the Houthis.
When Saleh left power, he stayed in the country and retained the loyalty of many military commanders, splitting the armed forces between himself and Hadi. Saleh’s forces were key to helping the Houthis overrun Sanaa in 2014, then much of the north and center of the country.
But over the past year, the Houthis appeared to have undermined Saleh, wooing away some of his commanders. That seems to have pushed Saleh into flirting with the coalition, ultimately leading to the breakdown of the rebel alliance.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that at least 125 people had been killed and about 240 wounded in Sanaa since the fighting began last week. Witnesses said the bodies of slain civilians and fighters were left in the streets as ambulances were unable to reach them.