Yemenis turn up in thousands to protest Houthi rule

Published January 24th, 2015 - 12:40 GMT

Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets on Saturday in the largest demonstration against Houthis since the militiamen overran the capital Sanaa in September.

"Down, down with the Houthis' rule," chanted protesters in Sanaa, who rallied following a call by the Rejection Movement — a group recently formed in provincial areas to challenge the powerful militia.

"Long live the Yemeni people. No to Houthis and no to Affash," the crowd shouted, using a nickname for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was toppled in a 2011 uprising against his 33-year-rule.

Saleh is believed to be backing the Houthi rebels.

Dozens of Houthi supporters tried to stop the demonstration, triggering a brief scuffle, before they left, as the numbers of protesters kept increasing, an AFP correspondent reported.

Demonstrators gathered in Change Square near the University of Sanaa before they headed for Republican Palace, in central Sanaa, according to organizers.

The palace is the residence of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, who left it on Wednesday for an unknown destination after a two-day siege by the militia.

But the protesters changed their route and headed toward the residence of embattled President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to express their "rejection of his resignation," according to the organizing committee.

The demonstrators were also demanding that Hadi "impose the authority of the state" in face of the tightening grip of Houthis on power, they said.

Hadi tendered his resignation Thursday saying he could no longer stay in office as the country was in "total deadlock."

Hadi blamed the Houthis' control of Sanaa for scuttling his attempt to steer Yemen toward stability after years of turmoil, tribal unrest, deepening poverty and US drone strikes on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants.

The Houthis surrounded the presidential palace this week. They accuse Hadi of reneging on a power-sharing agreement they signed with the country's main political parties in his presence after they seized Sanaa.

Houthi gunmen backed by armored vehicles were deployed along Sittin Street, where the president lives, but they only watched on as the protesters marched and did not attempt to stop them.

Large demonstrations also took off in the cities of Taez, Ibb and Hudaida, organizers said.

Parliament is set to hold an extraordinary meeting on Sunday to discuss Hadi's resignation offer, which needs to be approved by lawmakers to take effect.

Under the constitution, parliamentary speaker Yahya al-Ra'i, who comes from Saleh's General People's Congress party, will take office for an interim period while new elections are organized.

After heavy fighting between government forces and the Houthis this week that killed at least 35 people, the UN Security Council and Yemen's Gulf neighbors had all voiced support for Hadi's continued rule.

The situation escalated a week ago when the militiamen seized Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, in an apparent bid to extract changes to a draft constitution they oppose because it would divide Yemen into six federal regions.

The Houthis still hold bin Mubarak and maintain a tight grip on the capital despite a deal struck late on Wednesday to end what authorities called a coup attempt.

In return for concessions over the disputed draft constitution, the Houthis had pledged to vacate the presidential palace, free bin Mubarak, withdraw from areas surrounding the residences of Hadi and Bahah, and abandon checkpoints across the capital.

With the collapse of the government in Sanaa, the US has lost a reliable partner in its fight against AQAP with potentially dire consequences, officials and experts said Friday.

"Terrorist groups thrive on chaos, and the threat to the West could well grow," said Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department.

Until now, Washington has counted on the Yemeni government to share intelligence on AQAP, support US drone strikes against the group's leaders and permit the presence of dozens of US special operations forces.

US officials admit they are unsure what will be left of its counter-terrorism program after Hadi’s resignation.

"Yemen has been an important partner for counter-terrorism," a defense official told AFP.

"They have not just given permission for US operations, but taken their own action on the ground... No one knows what comes next."

If a new government opted to scrap its collaboration with the Americans, then Washington would have to consider taking "unilateral" military action against AQAP, he said.

US drone attacks in the impoverished Gulf country have killed many civilians unaffiliated with al-Qaeda.

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