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World

Yemen's President Flees As Rebels Move South, Reports Say

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Saudi Arabia has begun airstrikes against Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen. The Saudi ambassador to Washington announced the military action late today, saying the downfall of Yemen's government is not an option for his country. The ambassador also says the United States is not involved but has been consulted. The U.S. recently pulled out all of its personnel from Yemen, leaving it on the sidelines. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The conflict in Yemen has always been a difficult one for the U.S. to navigate, and it just got a lot harder, says Northwestern University professor Nabeel Khoury, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen a decade ago.

NABEEL KHOURY: Essentially, even though Washington will be slow to recognize this fact, the state of Yemen has failed.

KELEMEN: Houthis have gained control of much of the country, chasing out the internationally recognized president. The former president and forces loyal to him are helping the Houthis for now. Add to this mix - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, which claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Yemen last week. The regional context makes this all the more complicated, according to Gregory Johnsen, who's written a book about Yemen and now contributes to BuzzFeed.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: What we're seeing is that regional rivalries, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran, are being grafted onto this local domestic conflict. And when you put all of those different elements together, it really is a witch's brew.

KELEMEN: Yemen's Foreign Minister called for Arab support. Saudi Arabia's ambassador Adel al-Jubeir says his country's military intervention, along with other Arab partners, is aimed at defending the legitimate government of Yemen.

AMBASSADOR ADEL AL-JUBEIR: The use of force is always the last resort. And it is with great reluctance that we took this step, along with our partners in the GCC countries, as well as outside of the GCC countries.

JOHNSEN: Yemen watcher Johnsen, who spoke to us before the Saudi announcement is worried that regional players could miscalculate and the U.S. doesn't have a lot of options to respond. It shuttered its embassy in February and just withdrew Special Forces.

JOHNSEN: And the purpose of those advisors was to help coordinate drone strikes and other counterterrorism activities that the U.S. was carrying out in Yemen primarily directed against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So those forces - those 125 individuals were evacuated last week. And today, the Houthis overran that base. And that was on their march south.

KELEMEN: White House spokesman Josh Earnest is condemning this Houthi offensive, saying the violent takeover of Yemen is unacceptable. He's urging all sides to get back to U.N. mediated talks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: We believe that there is a path here that can be pursued to try to resolve the differences among the parties. However that path cannot be pursued as long as you have the Houthis working with former president Saleh to foment a lot of instability in the country.

KELEMEN: The former U.S. diplomat Khoury, who's with the Atlantic Council, says of the U.N. has no power and can only shake its finger at the Houthis.

KHOURY: I'm afraid it's too late for either the U.S. or the United Nations. They should have done something before, but I don't think they were paying any attention.

KELEMEN: As for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Khoury says he expects the Obama administration to continue to launch drone strikes from outside the country.

KHOURY: That narrow approach can still be followed with or without a Yemeni state. But this will be futile - it's sort of like filling a bucket with a hole in it. You're going to have to keep filling it and the more terrorists you kill, the more terrorists are generated.

KELEMEN: The White House says despite the chaos in Yemen, the U.S. does have the capabilities to take out extremists and is in touch with some elements of the Yemeni government. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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