Houthi coup plunges Yemen into anarchy

SANAA: Defiant Shiite militiamen seized control of Yemen’s presidential palace and attacked President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi’s residence Tuesday in what officials said was a bid to overthrow his embattled government.

As the U.N. Security Council began an emergency meeting to condemn the attack and back Hadi, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “gravely concerned” and called for an immediate halt to the fighting.

Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the militia that bears the name of his late father, was defiant, warning that “all options” were open against the president, whom he accused of supporting the “fragmentation” of the country.

He also said his movement was ready to stand up to any measures the Security Council might adopt.

In a statement adopted by the 15 members, the council said Hadi “is the legitimate authority” and that “all parties and political actors in Yemen must stand with President Hadi, Prime Minister [Khalid] Bahah, and Yemen’s government to keep the country on track to stability and security.”

The council called for a full cease-fire and a return to dialogue to resolve differences, but there was no threat of sanctions.

U.N. special envoy Jamal Benomar was headed to Sanaa from Doha after briefing council members by videolink.

Benomar told the council that the Houthi fighters had launched a “massive attack using heavy weapons” on the palace, a diplomat present at the closed meeting said.

Violence has escalated in the capital, raising fears that Hadi, a key U.S. ally in its fight against Al-Qaeda, would fall and the country would descend into chaos.

Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said the militia had launched an attack on Hadi’s residence in western Sanaa, after witnesses reported clashes in the area.

Hadi was earlier reported to have been in the building meeting with advisers and security officials.

“The Yemeni president is under attack by militiamen who want to overthrow the regime,” Sakkaf said on Twitter.

Witnesses said the fighting outside the residence appeared to have subsided after two soldiers were killed.

A military official told AFP the militiamen had also seized the presidential palace in southern Sanaa, where Hadi’s offices are located, and were “looting its arms depots.”

Prominent Houthi member Ali al-Bukhaiti said on Facebook that the fighters had “taken control of the presidential complex” but that his group had no plans to target Hadi.

“Ansarullah has no intention of targeting President Hadi or his house,” Bukhaiti told Reuters, using the group’s official name.

He said what happened at Hadi’s house was the result of a “provocation” by Hadi’s security and that the incident has been contained.

For her part, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said “all parties must step back immediately from conflict.”

But Houthi said “all options are open in this action,” and that “no one, the president or anyone else, will be above our measures if they stand to implement a conspiracy against this country.”

In a long televised address, he also warned the Security Council that “you will not benefit from any measures you wish to take” against the Houthis.

“We are ready to face the consequences, regardless of what they are.”

The fresh unrest shattered a cease-fire agreed after a bloody day Monday that saw the Houthis, who overran Sanaa in September, tighten their grip on the capital.

Militiamen and troops fought pitched battles near the presidential palace and in other parts of Sanaa, leaving at least nine people dead and 67 wounded.

The militia seized an army base overlooking the presidential palace, took control of state media and opened fire on a convoy carrying Bahah from Hadi’s residence.

The premier escaped to his residence, where he has lived since taking office in October, and it was surrounded by the Houthis late Monday.

Tensions have been running high in Sanaa since Saturday, when the Houthis abducted Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, in an apparent move to extract changes to a draft constitution that he is overseeing.

Mubarak is in charge of a national dialogue set up after Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 following a year of bloody protests.

Saleh has been accused of backing the Houthis, and a source in the presidential guard told AFP that some troops still loyal to the ex-leader had supported the militia Monday. Before his kidnapping, Mubarak had been due to present a draft constitution dividing Yemen into a six-region federation, which the Houthis oppose.

The militants, who hail from the remote north and fought a decadelong war against the government, have rejected the decentralization plan, claiming it divides the country into rich and poor regions. 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.

Yemen’s branch of the jihadi network, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is considered its most dangerous and claimed responsibility for this month’s deadly attack in Paris on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Hadi’s government has been a key ally of the United States, allowing Washington to carry out repeated drone attacks on Al-Qaeda militants in its territory.