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Yemen's problem is ex-president not Houthis - foreign minister

RIYADH (Reuters) - Yemen’s main problem is not the Houthi fighters who have taken control of much of the country but their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose forces are better trained and armed, the country’s foreign minister said.

Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh talks during an interview with Reuters in Sanaa May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Reyad Yassin Abdulla told Reuters there could be no future role for Saleh or his family in Yemen, while the Houthis could only play a part if they disarm.

Abdulla was speaking in an interview in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have settled after leaving Aden last week when Aden, the last Yemeni city under Hadi’s control, came under Houthi attack.

Seven nights of air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition have targeted heavy weapons, ballistic missiles and other equipment held by both the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, but failed to stop them advancing from the central city of Taiz to the Arabian Sea.

Abdulla on Tuesday asked Arab states to provide ground troops to help secure Aden, but he told Reuters any decision on whether or how that happened would lie with the Saudi-led coalition and was still being studied.

“The main thing now is if Ali Abdullah Saleh forces stop fighting with them, I think they (the Houthis) will start to retreat. Our main problem now is not the Houthis. They are few, they have only light weapons,” Abdulla said.

Houthi politburo member Mohammed al-Bukhaiti told Reuters on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia ultimately seeks to split their alliance with Saleh and get him to turn on the Houthis - warning that they would “end” the veteran autocrat if he tried to do so.

Abdulla said the fighting in Aden and some other cities was not the result of Houthi advances, but of local garrisons loyal to Saleh, including the Republican Guard, shelling troops and residential areas loyal to the government.

“For president Saleh, his family, there should not be any role. This is now the end of it after what he has done to our people and our country,” Abdulla said.

He said the Iran-allied Shi’ite Houthis could only participate in a dialogue once they return to their northern heartland around Saadeh, surrender weapons and become a purely political party.

Although the only forces in Aden still loyal to the Saudi-backed Hadi are from local militias, some parts of the army continue to back him elsewhere including the eastern province of Hadramawt and near Marib, he said.

Editing by Dominic Evans and Louise Ireland