Saudi-led airstrikes did not stop Yemen’s Houthi rebels entering the city of Aden on Thursday where militias did battle with supporters of the internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi.
Aden is Hadi’s last stronghold but the leader himself has stayed in Egypt after attending an Arab League summit there this weekend.
The news agency Reuters reports that the fall of the southern port city would be more than a symbolic blow to Riyadh.
It would complicate Saudi efforts to persuade Yemeni tribal and army units to turn on the Iranian-allied Houthis.
Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict last week in an effort to block the advance of what the kingdom believes are Iranian proxies.
Hadi was still in Aden at the time where he had set up a remnant government after being driven out of the capital, Sana’a, in February. Like much of northwestern Yemen, it is under the control of the Houthis.
Residents told international news media on Thursday that hundreds of Houthi and allied fighters, backed by armored vehicles and tanks, had entered the city’s peninsula south of the airport and taken over the presidential palace in the neighborhood.
Four airstrikes against Houthi positions in the city were reported before nightfall. Several houses caught fire after being struck by rockets.
Arab planes also struck a rebel-held military base on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, at the entrance to the Red Sea, on Thursday, officials said.
On Monday, warships had shelled Houthi fighters and forces loyal to former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from the Red Sea.
The Saudi-led coalition, which contains most Sunni states in the Middle East, hopes to drive a wedge between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces who, the Financial Times reported last week, allowed them to slice through Amran — a tribal stronghold of conservative Sunnis who previously fought the Houthis — and storm Sana’a in September.
Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor, had been in power since presiding over Yemen’s unification in 1990. He was forced out of office by his Arab Gulf neighbors in 2012 amid fears of an “Arab Spring”-style uprising in the impoverished Arab country but still leads Yemen’s ruling party and commands the loyalty of army commanders. His alliance with the Houthis appears to be one of convenience.
Although the Houthis are supported by Iran, Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, cautions against portraying the conflict in Yemen as purely a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Houthi revolt was “spurred by the deterioration of central government control before Saleh’s exit,” he argues, “and then exacerbated by his successor’s inability to consolidate power — all of which created a perfect opening for the Houthis whose complaints about corruption and widespread pernicious foreign influence seemed to resonate with more Yemenis than ever.”