21 Jan 2015

Coup fears as Houthi rebels seize Yemen president’s palace

Fighters from a Shia militant group are in de facto control of Yemen after seizing the presidential residence overnight, but have stopped short of declaring a full blown coup.

Houthi fighters outside the presidential residence in Sana'a

Above: Houthi fighters outside the presidential residence in Sana’a

Houthi fighters stormed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s home in the capital Sana’a on Tuesday, killing the presidential guards in gun battles and exchanges of artillery fire.

President Hadi is inside the palace, as Houthis demand constitutional changes that will grant them more power.

Overnight, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi (pictured below) warned in a speech that further “measures” would be taken if the president does not bow to demands.

“All the options are open and without exception and the ceiling is very, very high,” he said in the live television address.

“And this is why, I here advise the president … implement this deal. It is for your benefit and for the benefit of your people.”

The Houthis are demanding a role in all military and civil state bodies in Yemen.

Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi

By early morning on Wednesday Houthi fighters, accompanied by an armoured vehicle, had replaced presidential guards outside the residence.

Yemeni military sources said the Houthis also seized the military aviation college located close to Hadi’s home, and the main missile base in Sana’a, without a fight.

However, the Houthis have denied a coup is underway. The group could be concerned about actions the US may take if President Hadi’s government is overthrown.
President Hadi is an ally of the US, and supports them in drone attacks the US military carries out in Yemen, as it targets the large Al Qaeda faction based there.

Who are the Houthis?

Houthis are members of a rebel group also known as Ansar Allah who subscribe to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidsm. Zaidis, also known as “fivers” (because they believe in five imams of the Islamic faith). They ruled northern Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962 when the imam of northern Yemen was overthrown in a popular coup.

Houthi fighter outside the presidential guards' barracks in Sana'a

Above: a Houthi fighter outside the presidential guards’ barracks in Sana’a.

Houthis are named after Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led the group’s first uprising in 2004 in a bid to achieve greater autonomy. In 2011 the Houthis joined the Arab Spring protests that led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down as Yemen’s president.

Last year the group participated in the National Dialogue Conference in which President Hadi announced plans for Yemen to become a federation of six regions.

However, tensions between the group and President Hadi’s government continued – with the group making demands that Hadi implement changes to better represent Yemen’s various factions and improve life for the country’s poor. Houthi supporters began taking part in demonstrations in Sana’a and in September several Houthi supporters were killed when security forces opened fire.

What followed was clashes between Houthi fighters and the military in Sana’a, during which the Houthis taking control of government buildings are areas of the city.

However, there was no further advance until the Houthis began a new offensive this month, leading to the capture of the presidential residence.

Houthis are widely considered to be allied with the Iran’s Shia government.

International response

On Tuesday the British Foreign Office said it was committed to supporting Presidnt hadi, and called for a ceasefire.

“Those who use violence and the threat of violence and use others to promote violence to dictate Yemen’s future are undermining the security of all Yemen’s citizens and eroding the progress made since 2011 to set Yemen on a new course,” a statement said.

Houthi fighter near the presidential guards' barracks

Above: a Houthi fighter near the presidential guards’ barracks.

Labour MP Keith Vaz asked an urgent question in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Referring to the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, he said: “If Yemen falls the frontline of this conflict will be the streets of London, Birmingham and Leicester. We simply cannot allow this beautiful country to become a haven for terrorism and violence.”

Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign Office Tobias Ellwood responded that he was “deeply concerned about the situation in the country” and said he urges “all parties to step back from conflict”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also called for an “immediate ceasefire” and the “restoration of full authority to legitimate government institutions”.

The US government has so far remained relatively quiet about the crisis in Yemen, though it has urged all US citizens in Yemen to leave the country.