By William Maclean
Yemen’s Houthi fighters took up guard at President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s home on Wednesday but said they had not toppled him, after two days of fighting that have put the Shi’ite group in all but total control of the capital.
The Houthis, who are friendly to Iran, have emerged as the dominant force in the country but, for now at least, appear to have decided to stop short of overthrowing Hadi, possibly preferring to keep the enfeebled leader at their mercy rather than claim the burden of seizing power.
Their defeat of the presidential guards in gunbattles and artillery duels in recent days adds to disarray in a country where the United States is also carrying out drone strikes against one of the most powerful branches of al Qaeda.
After clashes at the president’s office and home on Tuesday, the Houthis’ leader threatened in a speech overnight to take further “measures” unless Hadi bows to his demand for constitutional changes that would increase Houthi power.
By early morning on Wednesday, Houthi fighters, accompanied by an armoured vehicle, had replaced the guards at the president’s residence. Presidential guard sentry posts were initially empty, however a few guards later appeared and were permitted to take up positions.
“President Hadi is still in his home. There is no problem, he can leave,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo, told Reuters.
Yemen, an impoverished nation of 25 million, has been plagued by Islamist insurgency, separatist conflict, sectarian strife and economic crisis for years. An “Arab Spring” popular uprising in 2011 led to the downfall of long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh, bringing more chaos.
The Houthis, rebels from the north drawn from a large Shi’ite minority that ruled a 1,000-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, stormed into the capital in September but had held back from directly challenging Hadi until this week.
Houthi fighters battled guards at Hadi’s home and entered the presidential palace on Tuesday. In his televised speech overnight, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi warned Hadi that he had to implement a power-sharing deal struck when his men seized the capital in September.
“We … will not hesitate to impose any necessary measures to implement the peace and partnership agreement,” said Abdel-Malek, whose Shi’ite Muslim group is widely seen as an ally of Iran in its regional struggle for influence with Saudi Arabia.
“All the options are open and without exception and the ceiling is very, very high. And this is why, I here advise the president … Implement this deal. It is for your benefit and for the benefit of your people,” he said on live television.
The accord gives the Shi’ite Muslim group, which takes its name from the family of its leader, a role in all military and civil state bodies. Hadi, an ally of the West and staunch supporter of U.S. drone attacks on al Qaeda fighters in Yemen, has also been at odds with the Houthis over the divisions of regional power in a draft constitution.
Abdel-Malek’s speech appeared to leave little doubt that his movement was now in effective control of the country. Al Masdar newspaper referred to him as “the president’s president”.
The emergence of the Houthis as Yemen’s de facto top power in September has scrambled alliances and across Yemen’s political spectrum, raising fears of deeper instability in a country that shares a long border with the world’s top oil exporter, Saudi and Arabia, and which also has one of al Qaeda’s most active branches.
Foreign ministers of Gulf Arab states, allies of Hadi, were due to discuss the crisis in Yemen at an emergency meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh later on Wednesday.
Yemeni Information Minister Nadia al-Saqqaf said on Tuesday that clashes at Hadi’s residence amounted to an attempt to topple Yemen’s government, which the Houthis denied.