The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels occupying the capital agreed Wednesday to a deal in a bid to defuse tension after two days of violence heightened instability in the nation, a hub of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in the Middle East.
The agreement, reported on the state news agency, appears to preserve for now the administration of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by the United States and much of the international community.
The deal calls for "fair representation" of the Houthis and other "marginalized" political actors in state institutions and ongoing negotiations for a new constitution.
The accord appears to accede to the major demands made by the Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, in a televised speech Tuesday.
How much power remains with Hadi was an open question. Houthi forces control the capital and aides complained that the president was captive in his home, the Associated Press reported.
The deal seems to set the stage for a power-sharing pact that gives the Houthi minority greater say in government affairs in exchange for a number of concessions, including a drawdown of its fighters from the presidential palace and residence, both surrounded this week. But many key issues remain to be negotiated.
Hadi's administration seemed threatened in recent days when Houthi rebels, who seized much of the capital in September, advanced on the presidential buildings, sending government security forces scattering.
Houthi officials denied they were planning a coup and voiced support for continued dialogue with Hadi's government about political and constitutional issues. But Houthi officials also accused the government of engaging in widespread corruption and dragging its feet on political reform.
The deal also calls for a return of public sector employees to their workplaces and the reopening of schools and universities in the capital, which has been paralyzed in recent days.
As part of the deal, the Houthis also agreed to free a top aide to the president whom they kidnapped over the weekend.
The Houthis are concentrated in the north and are mostly followers of a sect of Shiite Islam that accounts for about a third of the population in a country of 26 million. Most Yemenis are Sunni Muslims. There is fear of rising sectarian tension in a country long racked by instability and periodic violence.
The Houthi advance and what critics view as a Houthi power grab have sparked sharp opposition from Sunni tribal groups and others in this strategic nation. Yemen is situated on the Arabian Peninsula, south of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and along major shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Yemen is also home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. authorities regard as among the most dangerous Al Qaeda branches. The group took responsibility for the recent attack on the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which 12 people were killed, though the organization's link to the assault remains opaque. Al Qaeda militants in Yemen often have been targeted in the U.S. drone war. U.S. counter-terrorism officials have collaborated closely with Yemeni authorities.
Al Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist group, and the Houthis are archenemies. Houthi leaders have accused the Hadi government of not being aggressive enough against Al Qaeda operatives in the country. But Houthi officials are also wary of what they view as U.S. and Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs.
Hadi, who was elected without opposition, has been tasked with overseeing a transition to democracy in the long-turbulent nation. He succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president ousted after three decades in power when "Arab Spring" protests broke out in the Middle East in 2011. Some have accused Saleh of collaborating with the Houthis in a bid for a political comeback.
On Wednesday, recordings of a telephone conversation in which the former president appeared to give instructions and advice to a Houthi leader circulated in the media, drawing considerable attention in Yemen and elsewhere. Critics of Saleh said the recordings showed that the former strongman was collaborating with Houthi forces.
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.