Houthi rebels seize airport; U.N. envoy warns Yemen at ‘edge of civil war’

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SANAA, Yemen — Rebels seized a Yemeni airport and set up checkpoints throughout the area Sunday as a U.N. envoy warned that the country was at “the edge of civil war.”

Houthi militants took over the airport in Taiz as they swept through the city and surrounding province, two officials with the Taiz provincial government said.

One civilian was killed and 82 others wounded when the rebels fired at local residents protesting their presence, the officials said.

The Shiite rebels have also seized security and intelligence buildings in Taiz, the officials said. Taiz, about 390 kilometers (240 miles) south of Sanaa, is Yemen’s cultural capital.

At a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on Yemen Sunday, a U.N. envoy said the country was in a “rapid downward spiral” at “the edge of civil war.”

“I urge all sides at this time of rising tensions and inflammatory rhetoric to appreciate the gravity of the situation and to deescalate by exercising maximum restraint. … Peaceful dialogue is the only way forward,” said Jamal Benomar, the U.N.’s special adviser on Yemen.

On Saturday the State Department said the U.S. military had pulled its remaining personnel out of Yemen due to the deteriorating security situation.

The rebels — Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country — surrounded the presidential palace in January. Yemen’s President and his Cabinet resigned days later.

Ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi says his resignation wasn’t valid and maintains that he remains the country’s leader.

Last week, a Yemeni jet commanded by the Houthi fired missiles at a palace housing Hadi in the port city of Aden. No one was injured, but the direct strike marked an escalation in the deadly fighting between the two sides. That same day, Yemeni military forces — some under the Houthis, others led by officers loyal to Hadi — battled in Aden, leaving at least 13 people dead in the clashes, Aden Gov. AbdulAziz Hobtour said.

There are growing concerns that terror groups could take advantage of the chaos to mount attacks and spread their reach.

Bombings at two mosques in Sanaa last week killed at least 137 people and wounded hundreds more. ISIS claimed responsibility in a statement posted on a site that has published previous statements from the group.

Journalist Hakim Almasmari reported from Sanaa, and CNN’s Anas Hamden and Catherine E. Shoichet reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Richard Roth, Greg Botelho, Hamdi Alkhshali, Ed Payne and Laura Koran contributed to this report.

By Hakim Almasmari, Anas Hamdan and Catherine E. Shoichet

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