Houthi rebels, Yemen's president reach tentative deal

AFP , AP , Wednesday 21 Jan 2015

A Houthi fighter screens members of the Yemeni presidential guards who are wearing civilian clothes, as they leave the presidential palace with their belongings in Sanaa January 21, 2015. (Photo:Reuters)

Shiite rebels holding Yemen's president captive in his home reached a deal with the US-backed leader Wednesday to end a violent standoff in the capital, the country's state news agency reported.

The agreement promised to give the rebel Houthi movement more say in the affairs of the Arab world's poorest country in exchange for the group removing its fighters from President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's home, the SABA news agency said.

However, the late-night deal left unanswered who really controls the country and how much power is still held by Hadi, a key ally in U.S. efforts to battle Yemen's local al-Qaida branch.

In the deal, the Houthis also agreed to release a top aide to Hadi that they had kidnapped in recent days.

SABA said the agreement included a clause that would answer the rebels' demands to amend the constitution and expand their representation in the parliament and in state institutions. It also included promises to ensure better representation for Yemen's southerners as well, the deal said.

The agreement also calls on Hadi to shake up a commission tasked with writing a draft constitution to ensure bigger representation for the Houthis.

The draft constitution has proposed a federation of six regions, something the Houthis reject. The agreement reached Wednesday night also ensures that Yemen would be a federal state, but doesn't mention the six region proposal, saying controversial issues will be further discussed.

The agreement, while addressing the immediate Houthi takeover and security concerns in the capital, leaves the contentious political issues unresolved.

The Houthis, who took control of the capital in September, say they only want an equal share of power, while critics say that they prefer presence of Hadi as a symbolic leader while they keep a grip on power. Critics also say the Houthis are backed by Shiite power Iran, something they deny.

The increasingly weakened leadership and power vacuum are setting stage for al-Qaida in Yemen, which claimed the recent attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and failed assaults on the U.S. homeland, to grow more powerful in the chaos.

The powerful militia seized almost full control of the capital Sanaa in September and have fought pitched battles with government forces this week as they press for more political power.

On Tuesday, the militia seized Hadi's offices at the presidential palace and attacked his residence, in what officials said was an attempt to overthrow the government.

The unrest has raised deep international concern, with the UN Security Council condemning the attacks and backing Hadi as Yemen's "legitimate authority".

After an emergency meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday, foreign ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council accused the Houthis of an attempted "coup" and expressed support for Hadi.

The Sunni-dominated GCC warned it "would take all measures necessary to protect their security, stability and vital interests in Yemen."

The envoy, Moroccan diplomat Jamal Benomar, was in Qatar and due to travel to Sanaa.

Hadi earlier Wednesday received Houthi representative Saleh al-Sammad at his Sanaa residence, a source said.

The escalation has raised fears of a collapse of Hadi's government, a key ally in America's fight against Al-Qaeda, and of the country descending into chaos.

US President Barack Obama "is being updated by his national security team," on the unrest, a senior administration official told AFP.

"We strongly condemn the violence and those stoking it in an effort to disrupt Yemen's political transition," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"We will continue to support efforts to bring about a peaceful solution."

The rising unrest has fuelled longtime divisions in Yemen, where the government, Huthis, southern separatists, powerful Sunni tribes and the local Al-Qaeda branch are all vying for influence.

The Houthis raised the stakes on Saturday by kidnapping of Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak.

Mubarak is leading efforts to reform how Yemen is governed under a "national dialogue" set up after autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 following a year of bloody protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

Saleh's party released a letter Wednesday it said the former strongman sent to Hadi a month earlier urging him to "hold early presidential and parliamentary elections to resolve the country's crisis".

Saleh has been accused of backing the Houthis, who are from the same Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam as the ex-leader, as has Shiite-dominated Iran.

Heavy fighting erupted Monday around the presidential palace and in other parts of Sanaa, with the Huthis seizing a key army base, taking control of state media and firing on a convoy carrying the prime minister, before a ceasefire was agreed.

Clashes resumed late Tuesday, with the militiamen seizing the palace and allegedly looting its arms depots and attacking Hadi's residence elsewhere in the capital.

In a televised speech after fighting subsided, defiant militia leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi warned "all options" were open against Hadi.

Yemen's second city Aden meanwhile shut its airport, seaport and entrances to the city due to "dangerous developments in the capital" and "attacks on the symbol of national sovereignty and constitutional legitimacy".

Aden is the main city in southern Yemen, which was an independent country from 1967 to 1990 and where a separatist movement still exists.

Since they seized Sanaa, the Houthis have pressed their advance south of the capital, where they have met stiff resistance from Sunnis, including Al-Qaeda loyalists.

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