Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed In Yemen, Houthi rebels are claiming to have killed the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh and the rebels had an alliance against the country's current president that recently broke down. This action by the rebels could escalate regional tension.
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Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed

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Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh Killed

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In Yemen, Houthi rebels are claiming to have killed the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh and the rebels had an alliance against the country's current president that recently broke down. This action by the rebels could escalate regional tension.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime ruler of Yemen, has been killed. Saleh ruled Yemen for 34 years until he was ousted during the Arab Spring uprising in his country. He left Yemen for a time and then returned and teamed up with rebels who took Yemen's capital in 2015. But then he broke with those rebels, the Houthis, last week. And now the Houthis claim they have killed him. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was recently in Yemen, and she joins us now from Beirut to talk about this. Hi there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

MCEVERS: So first just tell us how Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed.

SHERLOCK: So he died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his convoy. He had been in this fragile alliance with Houthi militias. And they were taking control of the capital together. Rather, they'd been ruling the capital together. But that alliance broke down, and just over this weekend, Saleh disowned the Houthis and suggested he was going to switch sides in the war.

So he was trying to leave Sanaa, apparently going back to his hometown when the Houthis ambushed him. There's some pretty graphic video out there of him wrapped in a colorful blanket - his body, rather, wrapped in a colorful blanket. The back of his skull is smashed, and his shirt is stained in blood. And Houthi state television said they'd killed him because he was a traitor.

MCEVERS: Just talk a little bit about who Saleh was and how he stayed in power for so long in Yemen.

SHERLOCK: He was the first leader of modern-day Yemen, and he was its longest-serving president. He was in power for about 34 years. And part of that is because of his tribal affiliation. Tribes are incredibly powerful in Yemen. It's how the society is kind of structured. And being from the largest and most powerful tribe gave him a lot of credibility.

But it was also his personality. One of the most famous quotes from him is that to rule Yemen is to dance on the head of snakes. I think just that quote tells you a bit about who he once was. He was a master at weaving alliances. He managed to survive, you know, the reunification of a country - civil war, revolts, tribal disputes. And even some of the best experts just can't really imagine a Yemen without him. When I spoke to Peter Salisbury, an expert from Chatham House, this is how he identified Saleh.

PETER SALISBURY: He was the fulcrum of pretty much everything that happened. Even when he was out of power, he was really dictating terms. He was making things happen on a day-to-day basis. And the basic arithmetic of Yemen always had to include what's Saleh going to do, and should people work with him or not work with him?

MCEVERS: And so what does that basic arithmetic look like now that he's gone, in a place that is still in the middle of a long civil war?

SHERLOCK: Yes. Well, Salisbury says, you know, it's unlikely to advance Yemen's chances at peace. The war there is between Houthis and the internationally recognized Hadi government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. And with someone as powerful as Saleh in alliance with the Houthis, you know, the Saudis might have had to tread a bit more carefully. Or maybe they might have wanted to use him to try to reach out to the Houthis and maybe even negotiate.

But with him gone, Salisbury from Chatham House said, you know, he expects that now the gloves are off, and the Saudis will not hold back in attacking the Houthis. And this might also escalate regional tensions because of course the Houthis have some support from Iran, which is locked in a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia.

Also, the situation on the ground is not positive at all. You know, Yemen is already suffering, with millions of people at risk of starvation. The humanitarian situation is terrible. And with an escalation in the fighting, it looks like it's only set to get worse.

MCEVERS: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut, thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK HAKIM'S "BET SHE LOOKS LIKE YOU")

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