REBEL Shiite Houthis battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace and elsewhere across the capital yesterday, seizing control of the country’s state-run media in a move an official called “a step toward a coup”.
The fighting near the palace marks the biggest challenge yet to the government of president Abed 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 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,” Mr Sakkaf said.
The violence began early yesterday morning, 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.
Mr Hadi does not live at the palace, but his home nearby was quickly 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.
Mr Sakkaf later said that Mr Hadi reached a cease-fire with Houthi rebels, though that apparently disintegrated into further gunfire. Prime minister Khaled Bahah’s convoy also came under fire after leaving Mr Hadi’s home for a meeting with a Houthi representative, Mr Sakkaf said. It was not clear whether Mr Bahah was wounded. Foreign ambassadors also appeared to be attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting.
“Working to promote cease-fire and political negotiations,” British Ambassador Jane Marriott’s Twitter account read. “Challenging times. And all most 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 one of Mr Hadi’s top aides to disrupt a meeting scheduled for the same day that was to work on the new constitution. .
Mr Hadi and Houthis accuse each other of not implementing a UN-brokered peace deal calling for Mr Hadi to form a new national unity government and reform the country’s government agencies as Houthis withdraw their fighters from cities they seized.