SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s embattled president fled his palace in the southern port city of Aden for an undisclosed location on Wednesday as Shiite rebels offered a bounty for his capture and arrested his defense minister. Hours later, the rebels launched airstrikes targeting presidential forces guarding the palace.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi left just hours after the rebels’ own television station said they seized an air base where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against al-Qaida militants. That air base is only 60 kilometers (35 miles) away from Aden, where Hadi had established a temporary capital.
The advance of the Shiite rebels, empowered by the backing of the ousted Yemeni autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh and his loyalists, threatens to plunge the Arab world’s poorest country into a civil war that could draw in its Gulf neighbors. Already, Hadi has asked the United Nations to authorize a foreign military intervention in the country.
The takeover of Aden, the country’s economic hub, would mark the collapse of what is left of Hadi’s grip on power. It would also open a new chapter in the Houthi-Saleh alliance and possibly pave the way for more infighting.
Aden was tense Wednesday, with schools, government offices, shops and restaurants largely closed. Inside the few remaining opened cafes, men watched the news on television.
Since the morning, there were conflicting reports on Hadi’s whereabouts. Witnesses said they saw a convoy of presidential vehicles leaving Hadi’s palace on top of a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. A second convoy was seen heading to the Aden airport, where flights have been halted amid the Houthi advance.
Military officials said militias and military units loyal to Hadi had “fragmented,” speeding the rebel advance. They said the rebels were fighting Hadi’s troops on five different fronts Wednesday.
Presidential officials said Hadi was in an operations room overseeing his forces’ response. They declined to say where that facility was located. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, made an offer of nearly $100,000 for Hadi’s capture.
Also Wednesday, Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi and his top aide were arrested in the southern city of Lahj, where fighting with Houthi forces was ongoing, and were subsequently transferred to Sanaa.
Later, the rebels and Saleh’s loyalists carried out three airstrikes targeting the Aden palace presidential compound and Hadi’s forces positioned there, officials said. No casualties were reported in the strikes, similar to ones carried out last week.
Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riad Yassin told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV satellite news network that he officially made a request to the Arab League on Wednesday to send a military force to intervene against the Houthis. Yassin is attending the Arab Summit due to take place in Egypt at the end of the week.
The airstrikes were an attempt to “assassinate” Hadi, Yassin said in another interview with the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV network.
Depicting the Houthis as a proxy of Shiite Iran, a rival to Sunni Gulf countries, Yassin warned of an Iranian “takeover” of Yemen. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.
Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, said their forces were not aiming to “occupy” the south. “They will be in Aden in few hours,” Abdel-Salam told the rebels’ satellite Al-Masirah news channel.
Earlier, Al-Masirah reported that the Houthis and allied fighters had “secured” the al-Annad air base, the country’s largest. It claimed the base had been looted by both al-Qaida fighters and troops loyal to Hadi.
The reported Houthi takeover of the base came after hours-long clashes between rival forces around the base. The U.S. recently evacuated some 100 soldiers, including Special Forces commandos, from the base after al-Qaida briefly seized a nearby city. Britain also evacuated soldiers.
The base was crucial in the U.S. drone campaign against Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington considers to be the most dangerous offshoot of the terror group. And American and European military advisers there also assisted Hadi’s government in its fight against al-Qaida’s branch, which holds territory in eastern Yemen and has claimed the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
U.S. operations against the militants have been scaled back dramatically amid Yemen’s chaos. U.S. officials have said CIA drone strikes will continue in the country, though there will be fewer of them. The agency’s ability to collect intelligence on the ground in Yemen, while not completely gone, is also much diminished.
The Houthis, in the aftermath of massive suicide bombings in Sanaa last week that killed at least 137 people, ordered a general mobilization and their leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, vowed to send his forces to the south to fight al-Qaida and militant groups.
The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September and have since been advancing south alongside forces loyal to Saleh.
On Tuesday, Houthis and their allies fired bullets and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in the city of Taiz, known as the gateway to southern Yemen. Six demonstrators were killed and scores more were wounded, officials said.
The Houthis also battled militias loyal to Hadi in the city of al-Dhalea adjacent to Taiz. Al-Dhalea, Yemen’s third-largest city, is also the birthplace of its 2011 Arab Spring-inspired uprising that forced Saleh to hand over power to Hadi in a deal brokered by the U.N. and Gulf countries.
Hadi on Tuesday asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention “to protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression” in Aden and the rest of the south. In his letter, Hadi said he also has asked members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League for immediate help.
Saudi Arabia warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.”
Hadi’s allies among the Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have evacuated their diplomatic staff from Aden over the past few days, officials said. They had earlier evacuated from Sanaa and relocated to Aden to support Hadi.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.