Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Rebels hold Yemeni president captive

Houthi fighters seize nations largest military base, as Yemen reaches ‘point of no return’

Yemen's Shiite rebels pressed ahead Wednesday with their power grab in the capital, Sanaa, holding President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi captive a day after seizing the presidential palace.

Presidential advisers said President Hadi "cannot leave his house" after Houthi rebels removed his guards and deployed their own fighters at the premises.

One of the advisers says the situation in Yemen has reached the "point of no return," that the military is in shambles and the country's security apparatus has been "crippled" after the rebel blitz.

Early Wednesday, the Houthis also 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. A day earlier, they shelled the presidential palace.

The developments further erode the powers of United States-backed Hadi, who was unharmed during the shelling Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, a lull settled over the capital after two days of fierce gun battles 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.

"This is a coup. There is no other word to describe what is happening but a coup," Col. Saleh al-Jamalani, the commander of the Presidential Protection Force, which guards the presidential palace, told The Associated Press. He said insiders likely aided the rebels.

The Houthis’ 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 United Nations-brokered deal that effectively grants the Houthis a bigger share of power.

Yemeni military officials said there was no resistance as the Houthis took the base housing ballistic missiles in western Sanaa. The rebels demanded that the commanders hand over control of the base to them, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In his speech, 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.

The Houthis are a group within the 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.

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.

The weakening of Hadi 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 the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this month. Washington has long viewed AQAP as the global network's most dangerous affiliate.

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 a Houthi "coup" against "national sovereignty."

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

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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