Yemen’s Houthi rebels said they were preparing an offensive against forces loyal to the country’s president a day after suicide bombings marked an escalation of the civil conflict.
The U.S. evacuated all remaining personnel in the Arab nation due to deteriorating security, State Dept. spokesman Jeff Rathke said in an e-mailed statement.
The Houthis’ ruling revolutionary committee announced “general mobilization” and “ordered the security and army institutions to carry out their duties in repulsing this dirty war,” according to a statement carried by the state Saba news agency, which the Houthis control. They blamed “terrorist elements” in militias loyal to President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi for attacks in the cities of Aden, Lahj and Sana’a. At least 137 people died in bombings at Sana’a’s Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques on Friday while almost 350 were hurt, according to local television. The mosques, like most of the capital, are controlled by the Shiite Houthi rebels, based in north Yemen, who have been battling both forces loyal to President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi and al-Qaeda militants.
The escalation of violence threatens to split a country that only reunified in 1990 after decades of division, and draw in neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter. The erosion of government authority has already allowed al-Qaeda to take root in Yemen and use it as a base for operations against Arab and Western nations.
Hadi, who has fled to Aden in southern Yemen after weeks of house arrest by the Houthis, said the suicide bombings were aimed at dragging the country into chaos.
Speaking in a televised address Saturday, he called on the Houthis to withdraw from ministries and state institutions in Sana’a and other cities and called for talks in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to resolve the crisis.
Saudi Arabia backs Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate ruler, and like the Persian Gulf’s other Sunni monarchies it sees the Houthis as tools of Iran, the Middle East’s leading Shiite power.
The U.S. will continue to engage the Yemeni people to support a peaceful political transition, and will actively monitor and take action to disrupt threats emanating from Yemen, Rathke said in the statement About 100 U.S. Special Forces troops were leaving Al Anad airbase, CNN reported Saturday, citing people it didn’t identify. The troops were the last U.S. personnel in Yemen.
It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the suicide bombings. While Islamic State claimed responsibility, the militant group that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq has had little involvement in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda, which has frequently targeted the Houthis, said on Twitter that it didn’t order the attacks and avoids striking areas, like the Sana’a mosques, frequented by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam, in a statement on Facebook Saturday, accused Hadi of backing al-Qaeda in the south of the country and in Marib and al-Baidha provinces. The Houthis accuse the Gulf Arabs of meddling in Yemen’s affairs, and say Hadi’s government, counted by the U.S. as an ally against al-Qaeda, was secretly backing the jihadist group.
The mosque bombings came a day after clashes broke out in south Yemen, where Hadi and allies regrouped after fleeing the capital. Hadi was evacuated from his palace in Aden during intense gun battles between his fighters and rival troops loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the complex was also hit by airstrikes.
Fighting escalated in other southern provinces on Friday. Al-Qaeda-linked militants seized control of army camps in the city of al-Hawtah and executed 29 soldiers, according to the Defense Ministry. In Taiz, hundreds of troops loyal to the Houthis entered the city without meeting armed resistance, though their arrival sparked protests by residents.
Jets piloted by elements of Yemen’s military that support the Houthis flew over Aden for a second day, and were fired at by Hadi’s anti-aircraft artillery. At least 15 people were killed in Thursday’s fighting in the southern port.
The U.S. State Department has condemned the suicide bombings and the attacks on Hadi’s palace, blamed the Houthis and Saleh for “violent incitement,” and urged a return to peace talks brokered by the United Nations.