Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed in Sanaa

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(CNN) — Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi rebels on Monday as he fled the capital Sanaa after days of intense street fighting between his forces and the insurgents.

Saleh's death at the hands of his erstwhile allies dealt a heavy blow to hopes of an end to the country's protracted conflict and sparked fears of further bloodshed in Sanaa.

Sanaa's Houthi-controlled Interior Ministry announced the veteran Yemeni leader's death in a statement. "The militias of treason are finished and their leader has been killed," the statement said.

CNN has also seen footage and video that appeared to show Saleh's dead body. The images could not be independently verified.

Saleh was killed when the vehicle he was traveling in came under a fire at a checkpoint south of rebel-held Sanaa, a senior Houthi commander told CNN. Several of his senior aides were also killed, the commander said.

Saleh's Sanaa home had been under Houthi siege for more than 48 hours before he decided to flee for what he thought would be the safety of his native town of Sanhan.

Saleh's body was brought back to the capital and has been handed over to the leadership of his party, the General People's Congress.

Two days earlier, Saleh announced he was breaking a three-year alliance with the Iranian-backed Houthis, and that he wanted to "turn the page" on relations with the Saudi-led coalition that launched a military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen in 2015.

The Saudi coalition, which has imposed a crippling blockade on the country, welcomed the move and granted Saleh's forces air support in fierce battles that later took place.

But for Saleh, known for his political cunning, the gamble proved to be a fatal move.

Blow to peace

Saleh's death seems likely to inflame what has become a proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"Despite what may have seemed like a dramatic victory for Saleh, the Houthis fought back and they fought back hard," said Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations and a former resident of Sanaa.

"What you're seeing now is that the Houthis are potentially poised to really completely consolidate power in Yemen ... this makes a peace deal less possible," he added.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi, speaking on Al Masirah TV, described Monday's events as "historic and unique" and said Saleh's about-face was a "conspiracy that the Yemeni people prevailed over."

The United Nations on Saturday urged all factions "to urgently come to the negotiations table and to engage in the peace process."

"We reiterate our position that the political solution is the only way out of a prolonged conflict in Yemen," Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in a statement.

The former Yemeni president's defection seemed to signal a breakthrough in the more than two-year war, potentially breaking a stalemate that has sustained the fighting.

But it triggered major upheaval in Sanaa. Residents of the Yemeni capital, home to some 5 million people, say that the past 24 hours marked the deadliest of Yemen's war. Incessant street battles and explosions extended across the city, according to residents, as schools and hospitals shut their doors.

At least 125 people were killed and a further 238 are known to have been injured in the fighting over the past five days, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross told CNN.

The spokeswoman added that the ICRC is urgently trying to supply fuel for generators along with body bags to two of the main hospitals in Sanaa, which are "running critically low" of supplies "due to the fact that no commercial imports are coming into the country."

Thirteen ICRC staff members were relocated on Monday from Sanaa to Djibouti because of "fierce clashes" in Sanaa overnight, and will "continue to work on Yemen from there," the spokeswoman added.

"You've seen a dramatic shift. I think you're seeing the Houthis effectively switch from seeing Saleh as an ally of convenience to a massive problem," said Baron.

The UN's humanitarian coordinator in Sanaa, Jamie McGoldrick, in a statement Monday, called for a "humanitarian pause" in the fighting on Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. local time.

The pause is necessary "to allow civilians to leave their homes and seek assistance and protection and to facilitate the movement of aid workers to ensure the continuity of life-saving programs" and ensure the wounded have access to medical care.

"The streets of Sanaa city have become battlegrounds and people are trapped in their homes, unable to move out in search of safety and medical care and to access basic supplies such as food, fuel and safe water," he said.

"Ambulances and medical teams cannot reach the injured due to ongoing clashes, with reports of some coming under attack. Aid workers remain in lockdown and unable to move, impacting many life-saving activities."

McGoldrick warned that attacks on civilians may be considered war crimes and asked governments "who have leverage on the parties to the conflict in Yemen to step up their engagement for the sake of the protection of the civilian population."

On Friday, the UN warned the Saudi-led coalition of the catastrophic consequences associated with not fully lifting a blockade it has imposed on Yemen.

Three-quarters of Yemenis need some kind of humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs, international observers have said, with more than 17 million people facing food insecurity, including 8.4 million at risk of starvation.

Saleh: a long-time strongman

Saleh rose to power as part of a military coup, becoming president of North Yemen in 1978. After unification in 1990 he became president of all Yemen.

He officially stepped down as president in 2012, less than a year after protests swept through Yemen as part of the Arab Spring. He re-emerged as a major political player in recent years, joining forces with Houthi rebels in their fight against coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia, a former ally.

Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Gulf states against Houthi rebels who ousted the pro-Saudi, internationally recognized government in Yemen in 2015.

President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has been living in Saudi Arabia since the rebels took over the presidential palace early that year.

The UN Human Rights Office has documented more than 13,800 civilian casualties, including more than 5,000 people killed since fighting began. The numbers are believed to be a fraction of the overall death toll.

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