Thousands of people protested on the streets of several Yemeni cities on Saturday, a day after Houthi rebels proclaimed a formal takeover of government by dissolving parliament — a dramatic move that completes their power grab in the region’s poorest nation.
In the capital, Sanaa, rebel gunmen fired in the air to disperse the protesters — beating some of them back with sticks and clubs. Demonstrators chanted slogans calling the Houthi takeover of parliament a "coup" and demanded the group withdraw its forces from major cities. Protestors also marched in the cities of Hodeida, Taiz and Ibb.
Tensions were raised further on Saturday when a bomb exploded outside the republican palace, wounding three Shia militiamen guarding it, officials and eyewitnesses said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Sunni group, has repeatedly clashed with the increasingly powerful Shia Houthis, raising fears of an all-out sectarian war.
The Houthis' rebellion began in September, when they advanced on the capital and seized control of much of Yemen. In January they raided the presidential palace and besieged the residence of then-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Within days he and his cabinet resigned. They remain under Houthi house arrest. The rebellion has destabilized the country's fragile security forces and stoked anger among tribal fighters allied to AQAP.
The Houthis had called on Yemen's many factions to negotiate a new governing coalition, but that idea never got off the ground before the Houthis' self-declared deadline expired Wednesday. Several rounds of multi-party talks overseen by the United Nations' envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, came to nothing.
The Houthis' Revolutionary Committee is led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a cousin of the Houthis' leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. It is expected to form a new parliament and a five-member presidential council to succeed Hadi. A Houthi statement gave no timetable for elections, nor any indication of Hadi's fate.
The political crisis in Yemen reshuffles the deck for the region’s major powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States. Saudi Arabia, which long has provided an economic lifeline to Yemen, slashed aid following the Houthis' September insurrection and shows no sign of restoring it. For Washington, the rise of the Houthis complicates its campaign to defeat AQAP, which could see a boost to its recruitment efforts.
Violence has not been confined to the capital. Four Houthi fighters were killed in a suspected AQAP attack in the southern al-Bayda province on Friday, while army forces clashed with tribesmen and AQAP fighters in a neighboring district on Saturday.
The Houthis, traditionally based in Yemen's north bordering Saudi Arabia, do not control the entire country. Secessionist forces and powerful tribes in the largely Sunni south are likely to confront with violence any effort by the Houthis to exert control there.
The most prominent secessionist figure, Saleh Yahia Said, declared that his aim was to secure an independent state of South Yemen. The leaders of several southern cities said they would never take orders from Sanaa, in the country's center.
Al Jazeera and wire services