SANAA, Yemen – Tens of thousands of supporters of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh rallied on Thursday in the Yemeni capital in a show of political strength amid emerging frictions in the rebel alliance seeking to control the nation.
The demonstration, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the General People’s Congress, Saleh’s political party, drew supporters from at least seven provinces. Some local reports said as many as 300,000 attended the rally, with many chanting Saleh’s name and holding party banners.
Saleh, dressed in a dark suit and flanked by bodyguards,vowed to keep fighting a Saudi-led coalition that is seeking to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
“We are ready to send, not hundreds or thousands, but tens of thousands of soldiers to the front lines,” Saleh told the cheering crowds.
The rally followed days of tensions between the Shiite Houthi movement that ousted Hadi in early 2015 and Saleh’s loyalists. On Wednesday, fighters from the Houthi’s “popular committees” denounced Saleh, describing him as “evil.” That followed a recent speech by Saleh describing the Houthis as “a militia.”
“What [Saleh] said transgressed a red line and he could have only fallen into this because he’s evil and void of every good, patriotic or religious characteristic,” the fighters said in a statement, according to a translation by Reuters.
Yemen’s war pits the Houthis and Saleh alliance against the Saudi-led coalition that is concerned about the Houthis suspected links to Iran’s Shiite theocracy, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, and displaced 3 million, according to the United Nations. The country, the region’s poorest, is also in the grips of a worsening hunger crisis and a cholera epidemic.
On Wednesday, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a two-story motel north of the capital, killing at least 46 people, witnesses and officials said.
“We strongly condemn the unfair and unjust aggression against our country and people that has killed and injured thousands of my Yemeni brothers,” said Jalal Almikhlafi, 35, an entrepreneur, echoing the sentiments of many at the rally.
Thursday’s event took place even though Houthi leaders have tried to persuade Saleh’s supporters not to hold mass gatherings in the capital, underscoring the lingering influence of the former president who was ousted five years ago after a populist revolution that was part of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The alliance between Saleh and the Houthis was always one of convenience. They are ideologically different: The Houthis are deeply religious while Saleh is a secularist. During his three-decade-long rule, Saleh fought six civil wars against the Houthis, who have long viewed his regime with suspicion, accusing it of corruption and blaming it for the country’s many problems.
Thousands of fighters from both sides had spread out around the capital this week ahead of the rally. On Thursday morning, a heavy exchange of gunfire erupted at a checkpoint close to Saleh’s residence between Houthis fighters and Saleh’s forces, witnesses said. A joint security committee formed by both sides resolved the dispute after 20 minutes. There were no casualties.
At the rally, Saleh did not address the rift, but his supporters expressed mistrust of their partners.
“The Houthis do not accept others and will only accept partnership out of necessity,” said Bassam Ismail, 37, a government employee. “I believe that the religion should not be used to achieve political interests.”