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Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh killed by Houthis, party says

DUBAI — Yemen's steely former president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, lost his last political gamble Monday, meeting his death at the hands of the Houthi movement — his erstwhile allies in the country's multisided civil war.

Officials in his General People's Congress party (GPC) confirmed to Reuters that the 75-year-old Saleh had been killed outside the capital, Sanaa, in what Houthi sources said was a rocket-propelled grenade and gun attack.

A master of weaving alliances and advancing his personal and family interests in Yemen's heavily armed and deeply fractious tribal society, Saleh unified his country by force, but he also helped guide it toward collapse in its latest war.

Image: Ali Abdullah Saleh
Ali Abdullah Saleh Khaled Abdullah / Reuters file

The Middle East's arch-survivor once compared running Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes," ruling with expertly balanced doses of largesse and force.

He outlived other Arab leaders who were left dead or deposed by uprisings and civil wars since 2011.

Cornered by pro-democracy Arab Spring protests, Saleh wore a cryptic smile when signing his resignation in a televised ceremony in 2012.

Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis from 2002 to 2009 before he made an impromptu alliance with the group that seized Sanaa in 2014 and eventually turned on him.

The two sides feuded for years for supremacy over territory they ran together. The Houthis probably never forgave his forces for killing their founder and father of the current leader.

Fearing the Houthis are a proxy for their arch-foe Iran, the mostly Gulf Arab alliance sought to help the internationally recognized Yemeni government win the conflict.

Saleh's army loyalists and Houthi fighters together weathered thousands of airstrikes by a Saudi-led military coalition in almost three years of war.

As the conflict wrought a humanitarian crisis, mutual sniping about responsibility for economic woes in northern Yemeni lands that they together rule peaked Wednesday when the capital erupted in gunbattles between their partisans.

Image: Houthi rebel fighters ride an armored vehicle
Houthi rebel fighters ride an armored vehicle outside Ali Abdullah Saleh's home in Sanaa on Monday. Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images

The ever-nimble Saleh was a pivotal figure in the war, which has killed at least 10,000 people, displaced 2 million from their homes, led to widespread hunger and a cholera epidemic.

Saleh managed to keep Western and Arab powers on his side, styling himself as a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. He received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid for units commanded by his relatives.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Yemen came onto Washington's radar as a source of foot soldiers for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia though his family came from Yemen's Hadramaut region.

Saleh cooperated with U.S. authorities as the CIA stepped up a campaign of drone strikes against key al-Qaeda figures, which also led to scores of civilian deaths.