Coup fears in Yemen as Houthis take control in Sanaa
SANAA // Houthi militants expanded their control of Yemen’s capital on Monday, launching an assault that threatens president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s hold on power.
The fighting, described by one official as “a step toward a coup”, raged around the presidential palace before a ceasefire agreement was reached late in the day.
The violence is the worst seen in Yemen’s capital since Arab Spring-related unrest in 2011 and highlights the Houthis’ unwillingness to compromise on key demands.
Tensions between the government and the Houthis, who have controlled most of Sanaa since September, increased last Saturday when the group’s militiamen kidnapped Mr Hadi’s chief of staff.
The Houthis claimed to be holding Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak because he was a key backer of a draft constitution that sees Yemen divided into a six-region federation.
The Houthis want the country to be divided into two regions and say they have other concerns about the draft constitution that must be addressed.
The group warned that the kidnapping would be only the beginning of an escalation against the government if their demands were not taken seriously.
Following the abduction, Mr Hadi met with a Houthi adviser, but still refused to agree to the group’s demands.
On Monday morning, the Houthis attacked areas near the presidential palace and took over the state news agency Saba and Yemen’s state TV. “All government media in Sanaa are controlled by the Houthis,” said Yemen’s minister of information Nadia Al Sakkaf. They also attacked Yemen’s intelligence headquarters.
An adviser to Mr Hadi said hundreds of Houthi gunmen had entered Sanaa on Monday morning to reinforce militiamen already in the city.
Al Quds hospital, in south Sanaa, was struck by Houthi rockets. “Nearly a dozen people were injured in the rocket explosion on the hospital, and an entire section was burned,” a medic at the hospital told The National. Houses close to the presidential palace were also damaged by artillery from both sides. Nine people were killed and 67 wounded in fighting throughout the city, according to Yemen’s health ministry.
By evening, government troops controlling areas near the presidential palace had surrendered. Mr Hadi left the palace at about 1pm and was taken by helicopter to an unknown location.
The ceasefire, negotiated between the interior and defence ministers and two Houthi officials, went into effect on Monday evening. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia, along with western ambassadors, were also involved in the negotiations. All embassies in Yemen closed during the unrest.
An earlier ceasefire reached around 12pm collapsed within minutes.
One of Mr Hadi’s advisers accused Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in 2011, and his son, Ahmed, a former Republican Guard chief, of aiding the Houthis. “The Saleh family sent out dozens of their troops to fight alongside the Houthis,” the adviser told The National, referring to the Republican Guard.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said the group will continue to demand a constitution that addressed their demands, even if Mr Hadi resigned.
“We agreed with Hadi months ago to delay on whether the new Yemen will be a six region or not. But Hadi did not stick to his promise and wanted to enforce the six-region solution on the entire country,” said Mr Abdulsalam.
The Houthis, a group rooted in the Shiite Zaydi sect, took over Sanaa and large parts of Yemen’s north and west last year. Along with government forces, they have also battled Sunni tribesmen and Al Qaeda militants.
On September 21, they signed a deal with the government that called for their fighters to withdraw from the capital in exchange for being involved in government decision making and having a presence within the state security forces. However, the Houthis said the government did not meet their conditions for the withdrawal and quickly formed armed “resistance committees” at key ministries and the central bank, cementing their hold over Sanaa.
“Hadi’s biggest mistake was agreeing to the September 21 ceasefire deal. He signed the deal without reading it,” said Abdulsalam Mohammed, head of the Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Center.
“He gave Houthis authority they thought would be possible only in their dreams. He sold them Yemen,” said Mr Abdulsalam.
Updated: January 19, 2015 04:00 AM