Houthi militants surround prime minister's palace in Sanaa

Published January 20th, 2015 - 11:18 GMT

Yemen's powerful Houthi movement surrounded the prime minister's residence after firing on his convoy during deadly clashes with the Yemeni army on Monday, the most intense clashes since the Houthis, took control of the capital in September.

Houthi fighters were in control of all three entrances to the Republican Palace, a building Prime Minister Khalid Bahah has lived in since taking office in October, a government spokesman told AFP, while Houthi representatives negotiated with President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

"Houthis meet with president to agree on terms for releasing chief of staff in return for changes in constitution and national authority," Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said on her Twitter account.

Earlier on Monday, Sakkaf said Houthi fighters had fired on Bahah's motorcade after he left a meeting with Hadi and a Houthi adviser that had been called to try to resolve bitter disagreements over a draft constitution.

A Yemeni government spokesman slammed the shooting at Bahah's armored convoy as an assassination attempt.

"The gunmen have surrounded the palace and the prime minister is inside," government spokesman Rajeh Badi said. Two eyewitnesses confirmed the siege.

Sakkaf earlier told Reuters the presidential palace had come under "direct attack" in what she described as an attempted coup. Hadi was believed to have been at home in another district at the time. "Of course it is an attempted coup," she said.

Witnesses said the fighting erupted early Monday after Houthis deployed reinforcements near the presidential palace.

The military presidential guard sent troops onto the streets surrounding the palace and outside Hadi's residence.

A security official said the army intervened when the Houthis allegedly began to set up a new checkpoint near the presidential palace.

But a prominent Houthi chief, Ali al-Imad, accused the presidential guard of provoking the clashes.

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

A ceasefire that came into effect after several hours appeared to be holding.

At least nine people were killed, including fighters from both sides, and more than 60 wounded, in an updated toll of Monday’s clashes.

The Houthis' September takeover made them the country's de facto top power, and tensions between them and Hadi had been growing since Saturday when they were accused of allegedly abducting his chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak.

Mubarak is the secretary general of the national dialogue on a political transition following the 2012 resignation of veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh after a bloody year-long uprising.

The senior politician was "driven away to an unknown location," an official from the national dialogue secretariat told AFP on Saturday, adding that the abductors "are suspected of being Houthi militiamen."

Mubarak's kidnapping came just before a meeting of the national dialogue secretariat to present a draft constitution dividing Yemen into a six-region federation, which the Houthis oppose.

Houthis, who hail from Yemen's remote north and fought a decade-long war against the government, rejected the decentralization plan last year, claiming it divides the country into rich and poor regions.

The street battles on Monday marked a new low in the fortunes of the Arabian Peninsula state, plagued by tribal divisions, a separatist challenge in the south and a threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed a series of deadly attacks in and outside Yemen, including the January 7 attack in Paris on a French satirical journal.

AQAP, reacting to the loss of its strongholds to Houthi fighters, has accused its opponents of acting as a proxy for both the United States and Iran, threatening renewed violence against them.

The instability in Yemen has raised fears that the country, next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and key shipping routes from the Suez Canal to the Gulf, could become a failed state along the lines of Somalia

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