Middle East

Yemen crisis: Houthi rebels 'not withdrawing' in Sanaa

Houthi fighters secure an entrance to the presidential palace in Sanaa. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi agreed a deal with the rebels on Wednesday

Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen remain in key positions in the capital Sanaa, despite a deal under which they agreed to withdraw, witnesses say.

The deal saw a series of concessions to the rebels, who surrounded the home and took over the palace of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi this week.

On Wednesday Mr Hadi agreed to allow the rebels a bigger political role.

In return, the rebels said they would pull back and free the president's chief of staff, held since Saturday.

The deal met a series of rebel demands including the expansion of Houthi representation in parliament and state institutions, according to the official Saba news agency.

A draft constitution opposed by the Houthis may now also be amended, a statement from Mr Hadi's office said.

The draft document had proposed creating a federation of six regions in Yemen, something the rebels reject. Wednesday's deal provided for a federal state, but did not mention a specific number of regions.

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Media captionIona Craig, a journalist who lived in Yemen for four years, says Houthi rebels could have seized control of the country by now if they wanted

A Houthi official, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, told Reuters news agency the group was satisfied with the deal, though it might take the rebels several days to withdraw.

"The agreement is satisfactory because it confirms what is most important in the partnership agreement," he added, referring to an earlier UN-backed power-sharing deal reached in September.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), are believed to have taken control of most media outlets. They have also surrounded the residence of Prime Minister Khalid Bahah.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Presidential guards were still being prevented from entering the presidential palace on Thursday
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rebels seized control of the presidential palace complex on Tuesday, damaging this guard tower

The rebels have denied their actions amount to a coup against President Hadi.

But their leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, went on TV on Tuesday to accuse him and other Yemeni leaders of ignoring the people's interests.

He also accused the government of encouraging the spread of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants (AQAP), which has vowed to defend Yemen's Sunni community against the Houthi rebels.

The UN Security Council has backed Mr Hadi's authority as the legitimate president in a statement agreed by all 15 members.

The US stressed on Wednesday that he remained president and said a joint counter-terrorism operation against AQAP was continuing.

But the BBC's Middle East analyst Sebastian Usher says that although Mr Hadi remains nominally in charge, the Houthis are currently in control.

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Media captionWho's in charge in Yemen? Explained in 90 seconds

The General People's Congress party of the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has endorsed the rebels' demands.

Mr Saleh has been suspected of backing the Houthis for a long time, even though he fought against them before stepping down after a popular uprising in 2011.

On Wednesday, the Qatari-based TV channel al-Jazeera broadcast what it said was a leaked conversation showing collusion between Mr Saleh and the Houthis.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Saleh was forced to step down as president in 2012 but he still has many supporters

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.

Since July the rebels have inflicted defeats on tribal and militia groups backed by the leading Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and battled AQAP as they have pushed into central and western provinces.

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