March 17, 2015 / 10:44 AM / 2 years ago

Yemen's Houthis replace air force chief in power struggle: military sources

SANAA (Reuters) - The Shi'ite Muslim Houthis, who control much of Yemen, have removed the air force chief for refusing to provide them with air support and replaced him with a general who is closer to their group, military officials said.

The move shines a light on the divisions in Yemen's shattered military as the Iran-backed Houthis and embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi vie for control.

Hadi fled Houthi house arrest last month and re-established his presidency in the southern port of Aden, while the Houthis control Sanaa. The United Nations, which is brokering talks between the two sides, has warned of imminent civil war.

Major General Rashid al-Jund along with the air force's chief of staff was dismissed on Monday and placed under investigation by the Supreme Security Council, a body formed by the Houthis after they seized Sanaa, the military sources said.

He was replaced by Brigadier General Khader Salem, whom the officials said was more sympathetic to the Houthis.

Houthi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for a comment.

The advance of the group into the capital in September and to other regions, mainly in central and eastern Yemen, has been met with resistance from armed Sunni tribes, some of whom are backed by al Qaeda militants.

Dozens from both sides have died in fighting for the central province of al-Bayda, and the Houthis have been targeted by bombings of Sunni Islamist militants including al Qaeda, who consider the Houthis heretics.

The strong al Qaeda presence in Yemen makes it an international security concern, particularly as it borders on top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes.

While the Houthis say they are waging a revolution against corrupt officials and their lackeys, Yemen's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors call their takeover a coup supported by Shi'ite power Iran. Tehran denies backing the Houthis.

Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Noah Browning, Editing by Sami Aboudi and Raissa Kasolowsky

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