Fighting shakes Yemen capital

Sanaa saw the most intense clashes since the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement seized the capital in September.

Yemeni soldiers block streets around the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa on 19 January, 2015. Picture: AFP.

SANAA - Yemen's powerful Houthi movement fought artillery battles with the army near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Monday, throwing the fragile Arab state deeper into turmoil and drawing accusations that the militia fighters were mounting a coup.

Explosions echoed across the city and smoke hung over downtown buildings as the most intense clashes since the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement seized the capital in September brought everyday life to a halt.

The Houthis had seized the state news agency and television station, but by evening a ceasefire was in force, government ministers said.

Medical sources said five people had been killed and more than 20 wounded. Final numbers were likely to be higher.

The battles marked a new low for Yemen, plagued by tribal divisions, a separatist challenge in the south and the threat from a regional wing of al-Qaeda, which claimed a deadly 7 January attack in Paris on a satirical journal known for mocking Islam.

The Houthis's September takeover made them the country's de facto top power, a development that has scrambled relationships and raised tensions across the political spectrum ever since.

Information minister Nadia al-Saqqaf, a critic of the Houthis, told Reuters the presidential palace had come under "direct attack" in what she described as an attempted coup.

"If you attack the presidential palace ... This is aggressive, of course it is an attempted coup," she said.


Saqqaf did not specify who had attacked the palace, but said the Houthis, friends with Shi'ite power Iran, were now in control of the state news agency, Saba, and state television.

The palace is defended by the military's presidential protection unit.

In the early evening, state news agency Saba quoted Interior Minister Jalal al-Roweishan as saying a ceasefire had gone into effect. Residents reported that the intense artillery and gun battles of earlier in the day appeared to have tailed off.

Tensions between the Houthis and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had been growing since Saturday when the Houthis abducted his chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, to gain leverage in a bitter dispute over a proposed new constitution.

But residents were uncertain about the immediate cause of the violence, which began in the early morning with explosions near the palace and the home of the national security chief. Hadi was believed to have been at home in another district at the time.

Saqqaf said Houthi fighters later fired on Prime Minister Khaled Bahah's motorcade after he left a meeting with Hadi and a Houthi adviser that had been called to try to resolve bitter disagreements over a draft constitution.

A Yemeni government spokesman described the shooting at Bahah's armoured convoy as an assassination attempt.

Residents said army gunners had shelled a housing compound used as a Houthi base.

Heavy gunfire and explosions shook the Hadda district in the diplomatic quarter in Sanaa's south. A Reuters witness saw gunmen in Al-Khamseen street, home to some senior government security officials, including the defence minister.