Yemeni Shiite rebels take base, guard president’s home

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s Shiite rebels pressed ahead on Wednesday with their power grab in the capital, Sanaa, capturing a military base housing ballistic missiles that overlooks the city and posting guards outside the president’s home, a day after raiding the presidential palace.

The Houthi rebels, who are trying to carve a greater share of power for their group, also issued fresh demands Wednesday, asking for the post of vice president and several key government offices.
The developments further erode the standing of U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was unharmed during the shelling of his neighborhood Tuesday and remained inside his house. The embattled Hadi appears to have run out of options amid the Houthis’ blitz, which has raised uncertainty over who is in control in Yemen and also concerns that al-Qaida’s Yemen branch could profit from the power vacuum.

Early Wednesday, the Houthis seized the country’s largest missile base on a hilltop above Sanaa, consolidating their grip over the city, which they seized in September after spreading out from their strongholds in the north.

Military officials said there was no resistance as the Houthis took the base, which houses the missiles, in western Sanaa. The rebels simply asked the commanders to hand over control of the base, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.

A lull settled over Sanaa after two days of fierce gunbattles between Hadi’s troops and the Houthis, during which the rebels swept into the presidential palace and looted its weapons depots, took over the TV building and the country’s official news agency, and besieged the house of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah.

A statement by Information Minister Nadia al-Sakkaf that Hadi’s residence had come under direct shell fire on Tuesday turned out to be incorrect. There was no damage visible on the grounds and residents said that the shells had in fact targeted the president’s guards.

The rebel leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, described the dramatic escalation in an address to the nation broadcast late Tuesday as a “revolutionary” move aimed at forcing Hadi to implement a U.N.-brokered deal that effectively grants the Houthis a bigger share of power.
If Hadi refuses to implement the deal, al-Houthi said “all options are open.” Al-Houthi listed as his main demand the shakeup of a commission tasked with writing a review of a new, draft constitution to ensure bigger representation for his group. The draft has proposed a federation of six regions, something the Houthis reject.

A Hadi adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, told The Associated Press that Houthi representatives submitted a nine-page list of demands on Wednesday, including that the post of vice president and deputy heads of many state institutions and government agencies go to the Houthis.

The Houthis are a political and religious movement who are followers of Shiite sect of Zaydism, whose followers make up a third of Yemen’s population of 25 million and live mainly in the north. The rebels are believed to have the backing of Shiite powerhouse Iran, a claim they reject. Sunni Yemenis live mostly in the country’s south and make up two thirds of the population.

Yemen’s deposed autocratic ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaydi, is a main baker of Houthis. Hadi is a Sunni from southern Yemen.

The chaos in Sanaa prompted the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to condemn the violence and call for a lasting cease-fire. In a statement approved by all 15 members, the Council asserted that Hadi “is the legitimate authority” in Yemen.

However, deep uncertainty loomed over the city and Hadi’s future. Outside his house, security guards that previously manned a post made up of sandbags and metal barricades had disappeared and were replaced by Houthis, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, standing at the gates. Other rebels stood outside shuttered shops or monitored traffic.

Analysts say the Houthi sweep could further fracture Yemen, and incite other disenchanted and rival groupings across the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Political analyst Mansour Hayel said that the Houthis power grab in the capital, would prompt “fragmentation of all of Yemen” which could become “worse than Somalia.”

Also Wednesday, authorities in Aden, the regional capital of southern Yemen, closed the airport there, the country’s second-largest, in protest to what their local authorities described as Houthi “coup” against “national sovereignty.”

Airport chief in the port city of Aden, Tarek Abdu, said the shutdown went into effect at 7 a.m. Wednesday and would last “until further notice,” following orders from the governor.

Local authorities also closed the port, a major hub in the Gulf of Aden.


Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.