JAN. 19, 2015
Gun Battles in Capital Shake Yemen
By SHUAIB ALMOSAWA and KAREEM FAHIM
SANA, Yemen -- Troops loyal to Yemen's president clashed with Houthi militiamen around the presidential palace and other areas for hours on Monday, in some of the worst violence in the capital in months.
At least eight people were killed as artillery and mortar shells fell on residential neighborhoods and tanks and gunmen roamed the streets. By late afternoon, a shaky cease-fire had taken hold, and the president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, appeared to have kept his post. But how much power he had retained was unclear.
The authority of Mr. Hadi, an ally of the United States and regional Arab monarchies, has eroded since September, when the Houthis, a former rebel group, seized control of much of the capital. On Monday, Houthi militiamen were believed to have taken control of the presidential palace, as well as two powerful security agencies.
As the government has steadily weakened, Yemen, the region's poorest country, seems more vulnerable than ever. Its economy is in ruins and humanitarian emergencies, including a high rate of child malnutrition, are straining the ability of government workers and international organizations to respond.
Sunni extremists belonging to the powerful local Qaeda affiliate appear to be surging in strength. The extremists -- who recently claimed responsibility for the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris -- have carried out a string of deadly bombings in Yemen, framing the attacks as retaliation against the Houthis, whom they regard as heretics from Yemen's minority Zaydi Shiite sect.
Leaders of a southern separatist movement, alarmed at the growing chaos in northern Yemen, have also intensified calls for an independent state.
The chaos has worried the Obama administration. American officials had touted a transitional political process in Yemen as a regional model after the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime strongman.
And for years, the United States has relied on Yemen's government to facilitate the American counterterrorism strategy, including missile strikes by drones on Al Qaeda militants that have been deeply unpopular in Yemen. The Houthis, who have framed their regional outlook as in line with Iran's, have vowed to challenge American influence.
The United States Embassy in Sana posted a message on Twitter on Monday calling for dialogue and the "immediate cessation of hostilities."
British officials posted similar sentiments, as the clashes widened.
By Monday evening, Houthi fighters were surrounding the prime minister's residence, according to Nadia Sakkaf, Yemen's information minister, who provided a Twitter chronicle of the unfolding violence. "Situation could escalate dangerously," she wrote at about 9 p.m., suggesting the cease-fire was in peril.
The Houthis and government security officials blamed each other for starting the fighting. Houthi leaders said that members of Mr. Hadi's presidential guard had attacked and wounded two Houthi fighters.
Government military officers accused the Houthis of an attempted coup. Tensions had been building for days; over the weekend, Houthi fighters abducted Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, a top aide to Mr. Hadi, apparently hoping to use him as leverage in troubled negotiations over a draft constitution.
As the fighting intensified on Monday, there was no public statement from Mr. Hadi, who appeared to have lost control of state news outlets, as events around him spiraled out of control.
Ms. Sakkaf, a former journalist, became a primary source for government news and commentary, with her posts on Twitter lurching between optimism and dread.
She reported on cease-fire negotiations as well as an apparent attempts by gunmen to kill the negotiators, including the prime minister.
After the cease-fire took hold, Ms. Sakkaf reported that life around the city was "almost normal," adding a significant caveat: "except near Pres house & palace."
The dead included four civilians, three Houthi fighters and two members of the presidential guard, Ms. Sakkaf said, and more than two dozen were wounded by stray bullets.
Shuaib Almosawa reported from Sana, and Kareem Fahim from Baghdad.