Yemen crisis: Houthi fighters tighten grip on capital

Yemen crisis: Houthi fighters tighten grip on capital
Yemen's Houthi rebels appear to have consolidated their control of key sites in Sanaa as embattled President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi seeks to restore order in the capital.
6 min read
21 January, 2015
Houthis fought deadly battles with the army in Yemen's capital [Anadolu]

Shia militiamen in Yemen allowed Prime Minister Khalid Bahah to leave his residence on Wednesday after a two-day siege, a spokesman said.

Spokesman Rajeh Badi said Baha's departure was "negotiated" with the Houthi fighters. He added that Baha had left for a "safe place" but did not say where.

Houthi fighters had surrounded the Prime Minister's  Sanaa residence late Monday, hours after he escaped a shooting attack on his convoy.  

Houthi fighters fought deadly battles with the army in Yemen's capital on Monday before a ceasefire took hold, leaving at least nine people dead.

Sources close to the Houthis told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the clashes started when members of the presidential guard attacked a Houthi checkpoint at the Misbahi intersection in the Hadda area of the city, near the north-west entrance to the presidential palace. 

The fighting marks the biggest challenge yet to the government of President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi by the Houthis, who seized the capital, Sanaa, during their advance in September across parts of Yemen. Many believe deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in a deal after Arab Spring protests, has orchestrated their campaign.

The embattled President met with Saleh al-Sammad, a Houthie representative at his residence in western Sanaa.

Sammad serves as an advisor to Hadi under an agreement signed on September 21 when the Houthis overran the capital Sanaa. 

A larger meeting, including representatives of political parties, is set to take place later Wednesday in the presence of the UN envoy Jamal Benomar. 

Battles in Sanaa

Fierce fighting took place Tuesday between the militiamen and troops guarding Hadi's residence, while Houthi fighters simultaneously seized control of the presidential palace.

The battles saw the convoys of Yemen's prime minister and a top presidential adviser affiliated with the Houthis come under fire, as well as Houthi fighters take over Yemen state television and its official SABA news agency, Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said.

"This is a step toward a coup and it is targeting the state's legitimacy," Sakkaf told the Associated Press.

Ali al-Imad, a member of the Houthi political bureau, laid the blame on Hadi.

"Hadi's guard is trying to blow up the situation on the security front to create confusion on the political front," he said on his Facebook page.

'Bodies in the streets'

The violence began early Monday, with witnesses saying heavy machine gun fire could be heard as mortars fell around the presidential palace. Civilians in the area fled as columns of black smoke rose over the palace. The fighting caused a number of casualties as ambulance sirens wailed throughout Sanaa. 

"Oh God! There are bodies on street," well-known Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy wrote on Twitter.

The Houthis' al-Maseera satellite television channel aired a report accusing the army of opening fire without reason on a militia patrol in the area of the presidential palace, sparking the violence.

A Yemeni military official said the Houthis provoked the attack by approaching military positions in the area and setting up their own checkpoints.

Hadi doesn't live at the palace, but his home nearby quickly was surrounded by additional soldiers and tanks amid sporadic gunfire, witnesses said. Schools located near the clashes also closed as Houthi rebels manned checkpoints throughout the city. Many families remained trapped in their homes.

"People are leaving on foot, searching for safety," resident Tarfa al-Moamani said.

Sakkaf later told the AP that Hadi reached a cease-fire with Houthi rebels, though that apparently disintegrated into further gunfire.

PM Bahah's convoy also came under fire after leaving Hadi's home for a meeting with a Houthi representative, Sakkaf said.

Government spokesmen Rajeh Badi told al-Masdar Online, a Yemeni news website, that Bahah was not injured in the attack.

Foreign ambassadors also appeared to be attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting.

"Working to promote cease-fire and political negotiations," a message on British ambassador Jane Marriott's Twitter account read. "Challenging times. And all Yemenis want is food and a job."

The spark of the latest spasm of violence appears to be rooted in the Houthis' rejection of a draft constitution that divides the country into six federal regions.

On Saturday, the Houthis kidnapped Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak.

Bin Mubarak headed the national dialogue set up after veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 following a year of bloody Arab Spring-inspired protests.

Oil production appears to have stopped as several oil fields in the south of the country, where Bin Mubarak is from.

On Sunday, the governor of Shabwa warned that oil companies operating in the southern province would turn off the taps if the Houthis failed to release Bin Mubarak.

A southern official confirmed on Monday that workers at three oil fields producing around 50,000 barrels per day in Shabwa and at the Balhaf gas terminal had walked out at midnight on Sunday.

The official warned of "further escalations" to press the Houthis to release Bin Mubarak.

The Houthis said they had seized the top aide to prevent a violation of a UN-brokered agreement they reached with the president last September.

Monday's battle comes a day after Hadi chaired a meeting in which he demanded the army defend Sanaa, SABA reported. It wasn't clear whether Hadi, who has made similar calls in the past, was issuing a new order for security services to take back control of  Sanaa from the Houthis.

Mutual distrust

Hadi and the Houthis accuse each other of not implementing a UN brokered peace deal calling for Hadi to form a new national unity government and reform the country's government agencies as Houthis withdraw their fighters from cities they seized.

Houthis also demand integration of their militias into Yemen's armed forces and security apparatus, something Hadi strongly opposes.

Houthis accuse Hadi of financing and harboring al-Qaida militants. Hadi's government says the Houthis use the accusation as an excuse to seize more territory.

Hadi was elected as a president in 2012 after a popular revolt toppled Saleh, who is a Zaydi, a branch of Shiite Islam that exists almost solely in Yemen. Houthis, who are Zaydis, represent about 30 percent of Yemen's population.

Saleh waged a six-year-war against the Houthis that ended in a cease-fire in 2010. Now, however, the old foes appear to have joined forces to challenge Yemen's traditional power players, including top generals, tribal alliances and the Islamist Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in the country.

The UN Security Council last year put Saleh on a sanctions list, along with two Shiite leaders, for destabilizing the country. Saleh's representatives have denied the allegations.

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said they believed tribal fighters loyal to Saleh were racing into Sanaa to back the Houthis in the fighting. 

A failed state?

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, is also home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) considered by the US to be the most dangerous arm of the terror group.

AQAP has said it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris "as revenge for the honor" of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The US has carried out a campaign of drone strikes in the country and the resulting civilian casualties from those strikes have angered Yemenis.

Since their takeover of the capital, the Houthis have pressed their advance into mainly Sunni areas south of Sanaa, where they have met deadly resistance from Sunnis, including al-Qaeda loyalists.

The turmoil has raised fears that Yemen, which neighbours oil-rich Saudi Arabia and lies on the key shipping route from the Suez Canal to the Gulf, may become a failed state similar to Somalia.