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Yemen: PM, Cabinet Returns After Months of Exile in Saudi Arabia

Prime Minister Khaled Bahah—of the internationally recognized Yemeni government that fled to Saudi Arabia after the Iran-backed Houthis seized swathes of Yemen early this year—has returned to his homeland after months of exile.

Accompanied by seven ministers on Wednesday, PM Bahah, who is also the vice president, reached Yemen’s southern port of Aden, which loyalist fighters, in coordination with Saudi-led troops, recaptured from the Houthis in July.

“Local officials and Saudi state media said Mr. Bahah flew to Aden with several of his ministers after spending almost six months working from Saudi Arabia,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The move appeared to be a step toward the establishment of a government in Aden to rival the one in the [Yemeni] capital, [Sanaa], which is controlled by Houthi rebels.”

The cabinet of Yemen’s U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was back on home soil and working out of Aden on Wednesday—focusing on restoring security and stability to the country, Rajeh Badi, a government spokesman said, according to Reuters.

Internationally recognized President Hadi, who fled from Aden to Saudi Arabia in March, remains in self-exile in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.  

In late August, Gulf News reported that Hadi is expected to return to Aden on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which falls on September 23.

Mr. Bahah’s return comes after months of fighting between the Houthis, who have formed an alliance with military units loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Saudi-backed armed groups who support Hadi’s return to power.

“The conflict has upended Yemen’s political order and drawn deep divisions between the north, which remains largely under rebel control, and the south, whose de facto capital, Aden, is secured by [Saudi-led] coalition forces,” reports The Journal. 

However, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the group’s most potent and dangerous affiliate, has reportedly managed to seize key parts of recently “liberated” Aden.

Al-Qaeda captured several key neighborhoods in and around the southern port, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and The Associated Press (AP) learned from unnamed military sources and witnesses on the ground.

The jihadists were even able to seize an army base north of Aden where they reportedly established a training camp for about 200 fighters.

Al-Qaeda maintains a presence in Yemeni cities around Aden as well as in al-Houta, the capital of Lahj province.

AFP reports that al-Qaeda now controls Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt, which is Yemen’s largest province located on the eastern part of the country along a long stretch of the Saudi Arabia border.

“Analysts warn that [AQAP] could use the [Hadramawt province] area to stage attacks on the West,” noted the Washington Post in July.

The Saudi-led air campaign against the Iranian-allied Houthis, which is backed by the United States, is not known to target members of Sunni al-Qaeda.

AQAP, which views the Shiite Houthis as apostates, has become a de facto ally of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition in Yemen.

After Houthi rebels consolidated their control over Sanaa earlier this year, PM Bahah and President Hadi fled to Aden first, then to the Saudi capital Riyadh where they worked from exile with Gulf Arab allies to combat the Houthi domination of Yemen.

AQAP has taken advantage of a power vacuum generated by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes against the Houthis and their allies that began March 26 and by ground battles between the Shiite group and Hadi loyalists.

AQAP has benefited amid all the chaos in Yemen.

The World Wide Threat Assessment, issued by the U.S. intelligence community in February, recognized that the Shiite Houthi “ascendency in Yemen has increased Iran’s influence as well.”

Virulently anti-Shiite, AQAP continues to combat the Houthi rebels in Yemen, taking “advantage of many Sunni tribes’ opposition to [Houthi] expansion to gain recruits to fight against the [Houthis],” added the assessment.

“The environment created by the turmoil in Yemen” has provided AQAP with new opportunities to capture new territory, conceded U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in mid-April.

Riyadh has reportedly deployed hundreds of tanks and other heavy military equipment into Yemen since the Houthis lost Aden.

Aden could experience a surge in activity by Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists amid the security vacuum in the southern city, points out an analysis by Al Jazeera.

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