Hani Mohammed / AP Photo

Yemen rebels seize presidential palace

Houthi fighters sweep into president’s compound after fierce clashes; top military official warns of ‘coup’

Armed fighters from Yemen's Shia Houthi movement stood guard on Wednesday outside the private residence of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose home is normally protected by presidential security officers, witnesses said.

Sentry posts were empty and there was no sign of the presidential guard at the compound, scene of clashes between Houthis and security guards on Tuesday, the witnesses told Reuters. The Houthi fighters were accompanied by an armored vehicle.

Yemen's powerful Shia Houthi rebels shelled the residence of the country's embattled president in Sanaa on Tuesday and simultaneously swept into the presidential palace, as a top military commander warned that an all-out "coup" was underway.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was inside the residence as it came under heavy shelling for half an hour, but he was unharmed and protected by guards, officials said.

The dramatic development put the U.S.-backed Hadi into a precarious position and represented the starkest challenge to his authority since the Houthis swept into Sanaa from their northern stronghold and seized the capital in September.

Information Minister Nadia al-Sakkaf wrote on Twitter that the shelling started at 3 p.m. local time "by armed forces positioned over rooftops facing" the president's house.

At the same time, Houthi rebels raided the president's offices, sweeping into the presidential palace and looting the grounds' arms depots, according to Col. Saleh al-Jamalani, the commander of the Presidential Protection Force, which guards the palace. "This is a coup. There is no other word to describe what is happening but a coup," he told The Associated Press, adding that the rebels were likely aided by insiders.

The escalation shattered a tense cease-fire that had held overnight and throughout the morning, after Monday's heavy clashes that engulfed the city, leaving ordinary Yemenis stunned and fearing for their country.

The latest outbreak of violence reportedly followed unsuccessful negotiations that day at the presidential residence between Hadi and a Houthi representative.

Also earlier Tuesday, Houthi rebels roamed the streets of Sanaa on foot and in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, manned checkpoints across the city and near the prime minister's residence and beefed up their presence around other key building, including intelligence headquarters.

The show of force came after they seized control of state media and clashed with Yemeni soldiers near the presidential palace on Monday. Heavy machine gun fire and artillery shells struck around the presidential palace and sent civilians fleeing as columns of black smoke rose and sirens wailed throughout the city.

Monday's violence left at least nine people dead and 67 wounded, Yemen's deputy health minister, Nasser Baoum, said. Houthis and Hadi's forces blamed each other for the outbreak.

Houthis' power grab has been long anticipated, and analysts say they are only finishing the job they began in September.

"What is happening now is just one more step toward [the Houthis'] consolidation of power," said Abdel-Bari Taher, a veteran Yemeni journalist and writer.

Tuesday's negotiations at Hadi's residence focused on the shake-up of an 85-member commission tasked with creating an outline of Yemen's future federation, as stated in the draft constitution, Cabinet spokesman Rageh Badi said.

Reforming the commission has long been overdue and was part of a U.N.-brokered peace deal after the Houthis' capture of Sanaa.

The Houthis accuse Hadi of violating that deal by calling in the current members of the commission to a meeting days ago, prompting the rebels to retaliate and abduct his top aide, Ahmed bin Mubarak, and setting the wheels in motion for the latest violence.

The weakening of Hadi, a top U.S. ally, undermines efforts by the U.S. and its allies to battle Al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the attack on a Paris satirical magazine earlier this month. Washington has long viewed AQAP as the global network's most dangerous affiliate.

The Houthis' blitz in Sanaa and expansionist aspirations in central Yemen, where Sunni tribesmen dominate, threatens to transform the current conflict into a sharply sectarian one, pitting Sunnis against Shias. AQAP, which has waged deadly attacks targeting both the Houthis and Hadi's forces, stands to benefit.

The Houthis are seen by their critics as a proxy of Shia Iran and are believed to be allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades before he was ousted in 2012 after Arab Spring protests. The rebels deny having any links to Iran.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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