Rebel supporters flood Yemen streets on conflict anniversary

Jamil Nasser with Mohamed Hasni in Dubai
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Supporters of the Huthi rebels and ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh chant slogans during a rally in Yemen's capital Sanaa on March 26, 2017

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Yemen's rebel-held capital Sunday in a show of support for the insurgents, two years after a Gulf coalition intervened against the rebels.

The Yemen conflict pits the Shiite Huthi rebels and their allies against government troops supported since March 2015 by a Saudi-led coalition.

The Iran-backed rebels staged a show of force over the weekend with the mass rally in Sanaa and a symbolic court ruling against Yemen's embattled president.

Crowds converged on the capital's Sabaeen Square on Sunday, chanting their vows to "resist to the end".

The protest came a day after a rebel court in Sanaa sentenced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to death for high treason in absentia.

The court found Hadi guilty of "usurping the title of president after the end of his term in office ... instigating attacks by Saudi Arabia and undermining the independence and integrity of the Republic of Yemen", the rebel-controlled Saba agency said.

Six members of the Hadi government were also sentenced to death.

Hadi, whose two-year term in office expired in February 2014, now lives in Saudi Arabia although he also visits his government's temporary capital of Aden.

- Iranian 'plot' -

The president was placed under house arrest after the Huthis overran the capital in September 2014, and later fled to the southern port city of Aden.

The coalition intervened with airstrikes on March 26, 2015, after Huthis advanced on other parts of the country including the port city.

Hadi's forces have since gained ground in southern Yemen, but the Huthis still control the capital and strategic ports on the Red Sea coastline.

The government-run Saba news agency on Sunday ran an editorial slamming the "rise of the Huthi militia" as an Iranian "plot" targeting Yemen and neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Huthi ally, slammed Saudi Arabia's role in the conflict.

"Free Yemenis will continue to choose resistance, as long as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia continues to choose war," Saba quoted Saleh as saying in a speech marking the two-year anniversary.

Rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Huthi said the coalition had been "living under the illusion that they can take Yemen in a week or a month... but have sunk into the mud".

- Possible 'war crime' -

Home to one of Al-Qaeda's most dangerous branches, Yemen has a complex history of civil unrest.

The rebels had long complained of marginalisation and in 2011 mobilised protests demanding economic and political reform that led to Saleh's resignation the next year after decades in power.

But the Huthis and Saleh put their differences behind them in 2014, as the rebels took control of the capital with the support of troops still loyal to the former president.

More than 7,700 people have been killed and three million displaced in Yemen since March 2015, the United Nations says.

This month, 42 people, mainly Somali refugees, were killed when a boat transporting them out of Yemen came under an air attack off the main Red Sea port of Hodeida.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch said there was evidence the attack may have come from the coalition and could amount to a war crime.

Saudi Arabia has denied involvement and called for the United Nations to take control of the Hodeida port, which is currently in the hands of the Huthis.

The United Nations has described Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, with fighting leaving millions desperate for food and shelter.

It says the country this year also faces a serious risk of famine.