Huthi fighters patrol a street in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 3, 2017, during clashes with supporters of Yemeni ex- president – AFP

ADEN: The United Arab Emirates yesterday denied a claim by Yemen’s Houthi rebels that they fired a cruise missile toward an under-construction Emirati nuclear plant. The denial came as a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, local media said, lending support to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh after he signaled he was abandoning his support of the Iran-aligned Houthis – a shift that could pave the way to end three years of war. Meanwhile, gun battles forced shops and schools to close in Sanaa as residents warned the rebel alliance was collapsing into a “street war”.

In a speech on Saturday, Saleh appeared to indicate the end of his loyalists’ alliance with Houthi fighters. He said he was ready to turn a “new page” in ties with the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis, if it stopped attacks on Yemeni citizens and lifted a siege. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said yesterday coalition aircraft pounded Houthi outposts in southern Sanaa overnight, but gave no details on casualties.

The Houthis said the missile fired yesterday was directed towards the Al-Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi, but provided no evidence of any attack. There were no reports of any missiles reaching Abu Dhabi. The country’s crisis management authority said the Al-Barakah plant was well protected and urged the public not to listen to rumors.

“The National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority denies claims by the coup trumpets in Yemen that they fired a missile towards the airspace of the United Arab Emirates,” the department said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM. It said the nuclear power project was “fortified and sturdy against all possibilities. And enjoys all measures of nuclear safety and security that such grand projects require”.

The Houthis had said Abu Dhabi, a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting against them since 2015, was a target for their missiles. The Barakah project, which is being built by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), is expected to be completed and become operational in 2018, the UAE energy minister has said. It is the second time this year the Houthis have said they have fired missiles towards the UAE. A few months ago, they said they had “successfully” test-fired a missile towards Abu Dhabi, but there were no reports of any rockets being intercepted by or falling in the UAE.

Senior Houthi official Deif-Allah Al-Shami told AP that the missile fired toward Abu Dhabi was a “message to the United Arab Emirates for its political and financial support to Saleh”. He said that the UAE has hosted members of Saleh’s family, including his son who was an ambassador to the UAE and believed to be residing here during the conflict. Shami also said the rocket attack was a message that “we will continue to target every nation that participated in the aggression against Yemen”.
Saleh’s announcement on Saturday was welcomed by the Saudi-led coalition, which has been backed by the United States and other Western powers. The coalition, which includes the UAE, is trying to help Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi back to power, but it has struggled to advance against Houthi-Saleh forces. A split between Saleh’s armed allies and the Houthis could tip the balance of power.

Army units loyal to Saleh have been clashing with Houthi fighters in the past five days, adding a new layer to an already complex situation in Yemen. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash appeared to back Saleh’s side in remarks on his official Twitter page. “The events in Sanaa are murky, but its national uprising needs support … to protect the Arabian Peninsula from Iranian expansion,” he said.

Residents in Sanaa reported yesterday that the Houthis appeared to be clawing back some territory lost to Saleh over the previous four days, and Houthi tanks were deployed amid heavy gun battles in the city’s central Political District. The area is a stronghold of Saleh’s loyalists under the command of his nephew Tareq, an influential army general. The fighting has cut off the airport road, prompting the United Nations to try to evacuate at least 140 aid workers from Sanaa, according to UN and other aid officials. The UN was awaiting approval from the Saudi-led coalition, they said.

Residents earlier said Houthi fighters seized the television studios of Yemen Today, a news channel owned by Saleh, after clashes that damaged the building. Residents said 20 employees were trapped inside. Meanwhile, Saleh loyalists cut off a number of streets in central Sanaa and deployed heavily in anticipation of Houthi attacks, as security sources said clashes this week had left some 60 dead across the capital and at its international airport. Saleh loyalists renewed a bid to seize control of Al-Jarraf district, a stronghold of the Houthis, who fortified their positions with dozens of vehicles mounted with machineguns, witnesses said.

They said the Houthis had brought reinforcements from their northern strongholds and deployed them in the south of the capital. The Houthis seized the home of rebel interior minister Mohammed Abdullah Al-Waqsi, who is close to Saleh, killing three of his bodyguards and detaining others, Saleh sources said. And Houthi rebels killed Mohammed Al-Zarka, a tribal leader close to Saleh, in Omran just north of the capital and members of his family, the same sources said.

The education ministry cancelled classes yesterday, normally the start of the school week, and witnesses said some bodies of those killed in previous clashes this week were still lying in the streets. Iyad Al-Othmani, 33, said he had not left his house for three days because of the clashes. Mohammed Abdullah, a private sector employee, said his street had been cut off by militiamen and he was staying home to avoid checkpoints. “Sanaa is becoming like a ghost town. There is a street war and people are holed up in their houses,” said an activist who works with the International Organisation for Migration in Sanaa. “If the confrontation continues, many families will be cut off” and stranded in their homes, he warned.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi called for calm and restraint. “All internal disputes should be resolved through dialogue to block the grounds for any abuse by the enemies of the Yemeni nation,” he said, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. – Agencies