ADEN (Reuters) - As Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies stage air strikes against Shi’ite Muslim militiamen threatening to topple Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the southern port city of Aden shudders from within.
Hadi’s supporters are fighting street battles with pockets of militiamen and allied army units who have penetrated the city’s northern suburbs, with at least 16 dead in total.
Rumors of Houthi sleeper cells abound and a curfew has been ordered to stop rampant looting.
As Aden’s security wobbles, the Arabs’ intervention may have come too late to save their ally Hadi’s last refuge.
“The Houthis came at night, entered the camps and caused the army to defect,” said Aseel, a Hadi supporter from the Popular Committees, standing guard at a roundabout in al-Mansoura district. Explosions and gunshots could be heard from time to time.
“When the Saudi strikes began, they fled and dispersed inside Aden, and we are now trying to capture them,” said the 28-year-fighter, who had been selling honey and driving a cab before he volunteered to join the Popular Committees, militia groups that are loyal to Hadi.
Residents say Aden now harbors dozens of army troops and irregular Houthi fighters, who either infiltrated the city in the last few days or were based in local barracks and found themselves stranded by the air strikes.
Lost in the sprawling city, some have been captured by local residents, other have been killed, while many more are still at large, scared and lonely on streets patrolled by young men with guns.
One straggler was beaten badly by an angry crowd, witnesses said, after he was found lost in northern Aden.
“What are you doing here? You’re a Houthi!” a man in the crowd shouted at him.
The Iran-backed Houthis captured Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September, causing Hadi to flee to Aden. Yemen’s Sunni Gulf Arab neighbors condemned the Houthi takeover as a coup and backed Hadi, raising fears that the struggle would turn into a regional and sectarian war.
A rapid military dash by the Houthis and their army allies toward Aden last week forced the Gulf Arabs’ hand, and their air strikes hit Houthi targets just after Hadi loyalists lost control of Aden’s airport.
Flushed with confidence after the intervention, Hadi left Aden to attend a summit with Arab leaders in Egypt on Thursday, boosting his international standing but doing little to secure the streets of his stronghold.
Shops were shuttered and families remained indoors, leaving the streets to armed men in plain clothes - Hadi militiamen, citizens who have taken up arms in self defense, and common criminals.
The Popular Committees ordered a 12-hour curfew from 7 pm on Friday and the city’s governor urged residents to cooperate with local security forces to stop looting.
“There are those who are trying to sow sedition between residents and the security police. We call on the Popular Committees to work with these forces because if state institutions collapse, the city ... will enter into chaos,” Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour said in the statement.
But those institutions have been compromised, as residents reported that arms plundered from military bases - rockets, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons - were being sold on the streets for a fraction of their usual price.
Not even Hadi’s palace was spared. After Houthi-allied war planes bombed it on Wednesday and the president moved to a safe place, ordinary citizens poured in and hauled out generators, furniture and whatever else they could lay their hands on.
Aden television has been running a talk show trying to rally residents to stand together and confront the looters.
Some were angry at the absence of anyone who could take charge of the city and reassure citizens.
“Where is the governor?” a woman who identified herself as Umm Sara asked during a call to the television station. “Why doesn’t he appear on TV to reassure people, as he did before?”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Editing by Noah Browning and Giles Elgood