March 8, 2015 / 9:24 AM / 3 years ago

Yemen's defense minister escapes Houthi-controlled Sanaa

Yemen's then newly appointed Defence Minister Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi attends an event in Sanaa December 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen’s defense minister has fled Houthi-controlled Sanaa for Aden, officials said on Sunday, in a move expected to bolster President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in his power struggle with the Shi‘ite Muslim group.

Yemen is caught in a stand-off between the Western-backed president and the Iranian-backed Houthi clan, now the country’s de facto rulers. They seized the presidential palace in Sanaa in January and confined the president to his private residence.

Hadi managed to escape from the Houthis two weeks ago.

Officials said Defence Minister General Mahmoud al-Subaihi escaped in a convoy on Saturday night, arriving in the southern port city of Aden early on Sunday.

They said the Houthis shot and killed four of Subaihi’s security guards in the western province of Hodeida, where they attacked a convoy in their search for the minister.

Hadi, who resigned after the Houthis seized the presidential palace, has since re-claimed the presidency and is seeking to set up a rival power center in the south with loyalist army units and tribes.

An impoverished country of 25 million, Yemen is part of a regional struggle for influence between rival powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Iran-backed Houthis control much of the north while several Gulf state embassies have said they would operate from Aden in the south after Hadi’s escape.

Russian ambassador Vladimir Dedushkin met with Hadi on Sunday and affirmed his country’s support, the first time a Russian official has expressed a position in the conflict in Yemen since the power struggle started.

Dedushkin told reporters after the meeting that his country had no doubt about Hadi’s legitimacy, the Yemen news agency in Aden said.

The United States and its Gulf allies fear the spread of militant and sectarian violence in Yemen will push the country towards a civil war and unravel the state’s already limited control over its strategically important territory between oil giant Saudi Arabia and an important Red Sea shipping lane.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the Sunni Muslim militant groups battling the Shi‘ite Houthis since they captured AQAP’s central Yemen strongholds last year, attacked a camp of Houthi fighters in Yemen’s central province of Baida on Sunday killing eight, tribal sources said.

In Maarib, another central province, clashes between tribe members loyal to the Houthis and those against it resulted in the killing of three Houthis before tribal leaders intervened to calm the situation, the sources said.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Tom Heneghan

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