Middle East

Yemen crisis: Truce takes effect in Sanaa after clashes

Houthi fighters fire at Presidential Guard soldiers in Sanaa, Yemen (19 January 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rebels claimed to have seized a military base on a hill overlooking the presidential palace

A ceasefire has taken effect in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, after hours of fierce clashes between the Presidential Guard and Shia Houthi rebels, officials say.

Interior Minister Jalal al-Roweishan said the government and the Houthis had set up committees to monitor the truce, which began at 16:30 (13:30 GMT).

People living near the presidential palace said gunfire had subsided.

At least three people were killed in the most intense clashes in Sanaa since the rebels overran it in September.

Under an agreement with President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Houthis pledged to withdraw from the capital once a new unity government was formed.

However, the rebels are still deployed throughout the city and have taken control of several Sunni central and western parts of the country.

'Step toward a coup'

On Monday morning, columns of black smoke rose from streets around the presidential palace and a military area south of it, as soldiers from the Presidential Guard and Houthi fighters fired heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery shells at each other's positions.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Soldiers blocked roads leading to the palace after the clashes erupted early on Monday
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Troops were also deployed outside the official residence of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Houthis positioned their own armoured vehicles and artillery in response

Information Minister Nadia al-Sakkaf told reporters that Prime Minister Khaled Balah's motorcade was later shot at after he left a meeting with the president and a Houthi representative at President Hadi's official residence.

The convoy of the Houthi representative - believed to be the president's political adviser, Saleh al-Sammad - also came under fire, she added.

Ms Sakkaf said the Houthis had taken control of the state-run Republic of Yemen Television network and the official news agency, Saba, and were refusing to publish any government statements.

"This is a step toward a coup and it is targeting the state's legitimacy," she told the Associated Press.

The Houthis also claimed they had taken control of an army base on a hill overlooking the palace.

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Hadi was safe after an "attempted coup", Yemen's information minister said

Witnesses told the AFP news agency that the fighting erupted early on Monday after rebel reinforcements were deployed near the presidential palace. The Presidential Guard then sent troops onto the streets surrounding the palace and Mr Hadi's residence, they added.

The Houthis' TV channel, al-Maseera, said the clashes erupted after troops fired on one of their patrols, while military officials accused the rebels of provoking the attack.

Reports of a ceasefire being agreed emerged throughout the morning, but it was not until mid-afternoon that the fighting tailed off.

At the same time, Mr Roweishan told Saba that a meeting of representatives from both sides, including Mr Sammad and the defence and interior ministers, had agreed to a truce.

Abduction

Tensions between the government and the Houthis, which were already running high, escalated when rebels abducted the president's chief of staff on Saturday.

The rebels said they seized Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak to disrupt a meeting he was to attend that day on the draft constitution, which they oppose, and to prevent September's peace deal "from being broken".

The Houthis, who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism, have staged periodic uprisings since 2004 in an effort to win greater autonomy for their northern heartland of Saada province.

They consolidated their control over Saada during the 2011 uprising that forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Since July the rebels have inflicted defeats on tribal and militia groups backed by the leading Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and battled jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has vowed to defend the country's Sunni community.

Opponents allege that the rebels ultimately hope to reinstall the Zaidi imamate, which ruled North Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962.

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