SANAA // Yemen’s besieged president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, reached a deal with Houthi rebels on Wednesday night to end a violent stand-off in the capital.
Under the agreement announced by Mr Hadi, the armed Shiite rebels are to leave his home, and the presidential palace they took on Tuesday.
They will also free his chief of staff, Ahmed bin Mubarak, who was abducted on Saturday.
The deal includes measures to amend the constitution and increase Houthi representation in the parliament and in state institutions.
It comes after the GCC accused the rebels of a coup against Mr Hadi, and demanded they leave his home and the presidential palace.
“The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council consider what happened in Sanaa on Tuesday a coup against the legitimate authority,” GCC foreign ministers said after an emergency meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday.
The council expressed support for Mr Hadi’s “constitutionally legitimate authority”, and rejected “all measures aimed at imposing change by force”.
It warned that Arabian Gulf states “would take all measures necessary to protect their security, stability and vital interests in Yemen”.
The UAE was represented by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The ministers offered to send an envoy to Yemen for mediation if the Houthis withdrew from the presidential palace and other government buildings, and freed Mr Mubarak.
Mr Hadi had spent Wednesday isolated in his residence in western Sanaa.
"The Houthi resistance groups will make sure the president is safe. We have taken over his security and his movements," a senior Houthi leader, Abdullah Shaban, told The National earlier.
His personal security handed over their weapons and left the president unguarded after the militants surrounded his residence on Wednesday morning.
The president’s personal driver was also dismissed and replaced by a Houthi militant, and Mr Hadi’s Houthi adviser, Saleh Al Sammad, appeared to have taken some control.
“Mr Hadi was quiet and in shock because his own adviser seems to be the one in charge of his security and possibly political decision-making,” Mr Shaban said.
Mr Hadi’s prime minister, Khaled Bahah – whose own house has been surrounded by the militants since Monday evening – was allowed to leave on Wednesday and go to a safe house until the political problems with the president are resolved, following mediation by political factions, a senior Houthi official said.
“We are going through a revolution and as soon as the president accepts our rightful demands we will allow the government to operate as needed,” said one of the Houthi officials responsible for the siege of the prime minister’s residence.
After the fall of the 5,000-strong presidential brigade on Tuesday, the entire government structure is under Houthi control. The rebels have set up checkpoints around the presidential palace, the defence and interior ministries and the National Security Headquarters, and all ministers and military commanders are searched as they pass through.
Mr Bahah took office in October under a UN-brokered deal between the government and the Houthis, who swept into the capital in September from their northern stronghold near the Saudi border. They have since installed checkpoints in provinces west of the capital and also seized control of major ministries and media outlets.
The militants have been demanding a greater say in governing Yemen and oppose a draft constitution that would turn the country into a six-region federation under a political transition being overseen by Mr Hadi. This transition stems from an accord brokered by the GCC in November 2011 that eased former president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office following a year of nationwide protests.
Mr Saleh, who has been accused of backing the Houthis, has called for early presidential and parliamentary elections to resolve the country’s current crisis, his General People’s Congress party said on Wednesday.
The Houthi takeover of the capital triggered the resurgence of a separatist movement in southern Yemen and strengthened support for Al Qaeda among the country’s majority Sunnis who fear a takeover by the Shiite rebels.
“Houthis will make Yemen a militant nation and if they are not stopped the country will face dark years ahead,” said AbdulRahman Al Mowaddi, an author on militant groups.
Counterterrorism experts say every Houthi victory in Sanaa boosts Al Qaeda recruitment, something the Houthis appear to be aware of. One of the rebels’ main priorities in Sanaa is combating sleeper cells of Al Qaeda, which has claimed 24 attacks against Houthi loyalists in the capital in the past four months alone. These attacks killed more than 120 people in total.
Ahmed Al Bahri, a Houthi investigator, said more than 900 people suspected of having links to Al Qaeda were interrogated in Sanaa last month and hundreds remain in Houthi custody.
“Houthis are dealing with Sunnis as if they are all terrorists and this will hurt the Houthis in the long run and result in more Al Qaeda attacks,” said Abdul Salam Mohammed, president of the Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Center think tank. “Seventy per cent of the Yemeni population is Sunni and Houthis oppressed Sunnis when they took over Al Jawf, Al Baitha and Ibb provinces,” he said.
Authorities in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden closed all land, sea and airports on Wednesday in protest against what they said was a Houthi coup against Mr Hadi.
Port officials told The National the move aimed to prevent infiltration of Houthi militants into the city. “Our decision will anger the Houthis and if they attempt to enter the south we will retaliate with more economic sanctions,” said a senior port official in Aden.
With calls growing for the south of Yemen to break away, politicians fear the latest developments in Sanaa will only boost the possibility of separation.
“We need to solve this problem before it gets out of our hands. Companies are closing down in the south and this could lead to an economic collapse. We are working with both the Houthis and the government to reach a deal soon,” said Mohammed Abulahoum, president of the Sanaa-based Justice and Building party.
The country’s liquefied gas plant between Mareb and Shabwa – Yemen’s main oil-producing province – is currently out of service after Shabwa tribes closed the pipelines. Meanwhile, authorities in Shabwa halted oil production on Saturday in protest against the Houthis. Foreign oil companies have evacuated most of their foreign staff, forcing oil production to drop to 35,000 barrels per day from 140,000 last week. Long lines in front of petrol stations are now the norm throughout Yemen.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse