Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—Fighters from Yemen’s powerful Houthi group seized control of the provincial capital of the Al-Bayda governorate on Tuesday without any resistance from government forces, local sources and eyewitnesses told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyewitnesses said Houthi militias, backed by the Yemeni army 139th and 117th infantry brigades, deployed in the streets and the state buildings of the city of Al-Bayda on Tuesday.
“Residents were surprised Tuesday morning when a military campaign, accompanied by tanks, heavy artillery and military vehicles, deployed across the streets and military and security posts overlooking the northern entrance of the city of Al-Bayda,” sources in central Yemen told Asharq Al-Awsat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Tribal militants from the city launched a series of RPG attacks on Houthi checkpoints, killing and injuring dozens and detonating two military vehicles, according to eyewitnesses.
Sporadic clashes followed between armed tribesmen and the Houthis near the city’s security headquarters.
The fall of the central city of Al-Bayda will serve as a stepping stone for the Shi’ite group to tighten its grip on the rest of the troubled country, including the restive southern provinces, according to analysts.
Al-Bayda, 130 miles (209 miles) southeast of Sana’a, is also a gateway to the strategic Ma’rib province, home to the bulk of Yemen’s oil and gas infrastructure.
With the takeover of the central governorate, the Houthis have extended their influence over 11 of Yemen’s 21 governorates since the movement’s occupation of the capital Sana’a in September.
The Houthis have also sought to tighten their control of Yemen’s central government, announcing a “constitutional declaration” last week that ordered the dissolution of parliament and assigned the running of the country to its security body, known as the “Revolutionary Committee,” sparking a new round in the crisis that has gripped Yemen for months.
The declaration came after talks to find a successor to Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government failed. Hadi resigned after being placed under house arrest by the Houthis.
Analysts warn that the Houthis’ actions will also embolden radical Sunni Islamists, and may result in jihadists attempting to travel to Yemen to take up arms against he Shi’ite movement.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Saeed Obeid Al-Jamhi, an expert on Islamist groups, said: “The Houthi plan will push Yemen into a series of wars and infighting during which the country will experience highly dangerous conditions no less serious than what is happening in Syria.”
Jamhi warned that the Houthi push into Al-Bayda will attract “hundreds of fighters from around the globe and turn Yemen into a hotbed of conflict that threatens Gulf security and at the same time serves the strategic interests of the US and Iran.”
“The Houthis’ capture of Al-Bayda governorate comes within their implementation of their own road map to swallow what remains of the country,” he said.
The expert accused the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, of double standards—“working militarily while sitting on the negotiating table.”
On Tuesday UN Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar headed a fresh round of talks between political factions in Sana’a in a bid to reach a political settlement.
The UN-sponsored talks have been disrupted on several occasions over the Houthis’ refusal to bow to demands for lifting the house arrest imposed on former president Hadi and pulling out its militants from state facilities.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the assistant secretary-general of the Al-Islah party, one of the parties participating in the talks, said the dialogue between the Houthis and other groups had so far been inconclusive.
“We joined the talks with others . . . in the hope that things would return to normal and move towards a positive atmosphere [so we can] find solutions. The Yemeni people are so tired of conflicts.”
The growing chaos in Yemen prompted the US, UK, and France to announce the closure of their embassies on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Recent unilateral actions disrupted the political transition process in Yemen, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community in Sana’a,” US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
The German government also announced on Wednesday it was preparing to close its embassy in Sana’a.
Mohammed Al-Ayed contributed reporting from Jeddah.