Middle East Updates / Yemen's Former President Flees Sanaa After Shi'ite Houthi Rebels Release Him

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L, on stairs) deplanes as he is greeted by U.S. Army General John Campbell (R) upon his arrival ain Kabul, Afghanistan Feb. 21, 2015Credit: Reuters

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6:40 P.M. Yemen's former president flees Sanaa after Shi'ite Houthi rebels release him from house arrest

Yemen's former president left the capital after Shi'ite rebels who had been holding him under house arrest released him under international and local pressure, aides close to him said Saturday.

They said Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi left Sanaa and later arrived in the southern city of Aden, adding that he later plans to leave the country for medical treatment.

Hadi has been under house arrest for several weeks following a coup by Shi'ite rebels known as Houthis, who captured the capital, Sanaa, in September and dissolved parliament early this month.

While the Houthi's control much of northern Yemen, the southern city of Aden is free from their rule and officials there have rejected the rebel takeover amid ongoing talk of a potential secession.

The aides say the rebels let Hadi go after pressure from the United Nations, the U.S., Russia and local political parties. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to journalists.

Witnesses said the Houthis and others in the area later ransacked Hadi's house and at least three people were seen each taking out a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the house. The spokesman for Yemen's embassy in Washington, Mohammed Albasha, said on Twitter that Hadi and his family had arrived safely in Aden, but that his press secretary had been detained.

Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, said Friday that rival factions, including the Houthis, have agreed on a new legislative body consisting of former and new lawmakers to serve during the country's upcoming transition period.

But a coalition of Yemeni parties voiced objections to the plan, describing it as an insufficient half-solution.

Ahmed Lakaz, spokesman of the Unionist Gathering Party, which is taking part in the dialogue, said the parties told the Houthis that they would not participate in the process until Hadi was freed. (AP)

4:44 P.M. At least four killed in car bomb attack at hospital parking lot in western Syria

At least four people were killed on Saturday in a car bomb that exploded in a hospital car park in the town of Qardaha in Latakia province, western Syria, state media said.

It was the first explosion to target the ancestral town of President Bashar Assad in the nearly four year conflict which has engulfed the country. (Reuters) 

4:22 P.M. U.S.-led coalition stages six airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria

The U.S.-led coalition staged six air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq in the past 24 hours, the Combined Joint Task Force said on Saturday.

The latest of the daily raids included one that destroyed two Islamic State fighting positions near Kobani, Syria, where Kurdish forces have been pushing back Islamic State with the help of the coalition.

Five air strikes near the Iraqi cities of Al Asad, Ar Rutbah, Mosul and Sinjar destroyed buildings, boats, vehicles and a fighting position, the task force said in a statement. (Reuters) 

3:46 P.M. Syrian forces, allied militants reportedly kill 48 during last week's Aleppo offensive

A monitoring group said on Saturday Syrian government forces and allied militants killed 48 fighters and family members during last week's offensive against opposition-held areas in Aleppo province, but the army denied it.

"I deny completely such an act that cannot be committed by the Syrian army whose duty is to protect lives and not kill people," a military source told Reuters.

He said armed groups kill residents whom they suspect of being loyal or working with the government and accuse the army of committing the acts.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday the dead were shot mainly in their homes in the village of Raitan on Tuesday shortly after the village fell to the army and loyalist forces including Iranian fighters and members of Lebanese Hezbollah.

Five women and 10 children were among those killed, it added.

Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the monitor, said his group confirmed the killings in the village from locals.

Reuters could not verify these accounts. (Reuters) 

3:21 P.M. Egypt court acquits former oil minister of charges of selling cheap gas to Israel

An Egyptian court acquitted former oil minister Sameh Fahmy of charges of selling cheap gas to Israel and squandering public funds and threw out his 15-year jail sentence, a judicial source said on Saturday.

Fahmy was first arrested and held in custody in April 2011. Prosecutors said former president Hosni Mubarak's government sold gas at preferential rates to Israel and other countries, costing Egypt billions of dollars in lost revenue.

The ruling is likely to raise fears among human rights activists that the old guard was making a comeback, especially as it came after a court in November dropped charges against Mubarak of conspiring to kill protesters in the 2011 uprising as well as graft changes related to gas exports to Israel.

Fahmy was sentenced in June 2012 and had successfully appealed his sentence in 2013. The Court of Cassation ordered a retrial and Fahmy was released shortly after.

The judicial source said the Cairo Criminal Court found Fahmy and five others innocent of the charges.

"The verdict is the headline of the truth. The court heard the witnesses' statements and had faith that the defendants did not commit any violations and therefore the court issued the innocence verdict," Fahmy's lawyer, Gameel Saeed, told Reuters. (Reuters) Read full story here

12:56 P.M. Rockets reportedly fired on Libya's Labraq airport

Attackers fired rockets at eastern Libya's Labraq airport on Saturday, an airport source said, targeting one of the oil producer's few functioning air hubs in a country gripped by violence. 

Labraq has become the main gateway into eastern Libya since Benghazi airport stopped working in May due to fighting.

The North African nation has descended into chaos with two governments and parliaments vying for control, while Islamist militants exploit a power vacuum four years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

The airport attack came a day after militants claiming loyalty to Islamic State killed more than 40 people in suicide car bombings in Qubbah, a town some 50 km away.

Labraq is located near Bayda, the seat of internationally recognised Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni since he had to flee the capital Tripoli when it was taken over by an armed group in August which set up a rival government and parliament. (Reuters)

10:47 A.M. Yemen ex-president released from house arrest

Former Yemen president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi left his home on Saturday for the first time since the Houthi militia stormed it in late January and put him under house arrest, prompting his resignation, witnesses said.

Hadi is believed to be on his way to Aden, his home town, news website Aden Tomorrow reported, citing sources close to the former president, the witnesses told Reuters. (Reuters)

5:15 A.M. One of world's tallest residential buildings catches fire in Dubai

One of the world's tallest residential towers caught fire early Saturday in Dubai's Marina district, sending bright yellow flames several stories high, but there were no reports of casualties, civil defense officials said.

The fire broke out at about 2 a.m. in the 86-story Torch tower on the northeastern end of the densely populated district, which is packed with multi-story skyscrapers. Debris from the fire cluttered nearby streets after the blaze appeared to be extinguished. High winds whipped through the area.

The civil defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were no reports of deaths or injuries. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear. (AP) 

4:35 A.M. New Pentagon chief visits Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made his international debut Saturday with a visit to Afghanistan to see American troops and commanders, meet with Afghan leaders and assess whether U.S. withdrawal plans are too risky to Afghan security.

"We're looking for success in Afghanistan that is lasting," Carter told reporters traveling with him on his first trip since being sworn in as Pentagon chief on Tuesday.

Carter, an experienced defense strategist, revealed little about his thinking on current trends and future prospects for Afghanistan, saying he was using his trip to gather information that will enable him to formulate advice for President Barack Obama. Consulting is his way of "getting my own thinking together," he said. Carter is Obama's fourth Pentagon chief. He served as the Pentagon's No. 2 official earlier in Obama's tenure and is seen as a technocrat largely untested on the international stage.

Afghanistan's security forces have improved greatly, but the country is still struggling with a resilient insurgency 13 years after U.S. troops invaded and toppled the Taliban regime. Many Afghans worry that Obama is risking an Iraq-like relapse in security by cutting American troop totals in half this year, from the current 10,000, and ending the military mission entirely at the end of 2016. (AP)

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