At least 15 dead in Yemen clashes as truce takes hold

At least 15 dead in Yemen clashes as truce takes hold
Houthi fighters shout anti-government slogans as clashes erupt between presidential guards and the Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 19. (European Pressphoto Agency)

An uneasy truce was reached Monday in Yemen's capital, Sana, after a day of clashes between Houthi rebels and government soldiers threatened the standing of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, a U.S. ally.

At least 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the fighting, Yemen's Health Ministry reported.


The rebels seized control of the strategically situated nation's state-run media establishment in what an official called "a step toward a coup," the Associated Press reported.

At noon local time, Hadi held a meeting with top advisors but sporadic shelling and gunfire was still heard until the late afternoon. Mortars reportedly fell near the presidential palace.

The government denied reports that Hadi, who was elected in 2012, had left the country.

At about 4:30 p.m., both sides agreed to a cease-fire.

Earlier, tanks and armored military vehicles had been seen rumbling along main roads in Sana, where daily life was paralyzed. Shops, banks, government offices and schools were closed.

An acute shortage of gasoline led to long lines of cars in front of filling stations.

"We may have a new Yemen by the end of the day, maybe even a new system altogether," Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf told Al Jazeera English.

Each side blamed the other for inciting the latest violence, which appeared to prompt many residents to flee the capital.

Western officials fear that continued chaos in Yemen could work to the benefit of terrorists groups, notably Al Qaeda.

Yemen is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded as among Al Qaeda's most potent franchises. It claimed responsibility for the recent attack on a satirical magazine in Paris, and is believed to have trained one or both of the brothers who carried out the massacre.

U.S. authorities have carried out drone strikes in Yemen against suspected militants, but civilian casualties from the attacks have angered many in the country.

U.S. officials declined to speculate on what the fighting meant for Yemen's government, but said they had so far not felt it necessary to tighten security or remove personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Sana.

"We continue to closely monitor the situation in Yemen, and we will calibrate the embassy security posture accordingly," the State Department said in a statement.

U.S. officials are divided on how much of a threat the Houthis' advance poses to the campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been largely shut down in recent weeks.


Some U.S. officials believe the Houthis are committed to halting all U.S. counter-terrorism activities in the country. Others say the Houthis have not taken a final position, and that there remains a chance that they would allow U.S. strikes on AQAP, which is their enemy as well as America's.

The latest fighting is rooted in deep disagreements between the Houthi rebels and the government in Sana. Each side accuses the other of not implementing a United Nations-brokered peace plan.

Houthi forces seized parts of Sana in September, a development that stunned many in the Arab world. The Houthi rebels say they are seeking greater rights and reduced government corruption.

Houthis, who mostly come northern Yemen, represent about a third of Yemen's population of 26 million.

This past weekend, Houthi forces reportedly abducted Hadi's chief of staff. Houthi leaders agreed Monday to a government demand for his release.

Some in Yemen suspect that forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in 2012 after a popular revolt, may be helping to stoke the conflict.

The complex Yemen conflict has pronounced sectarian undertones.

The Houthis, who mostly are members of a sect linked to Shiite Islam, have accused the government of aiding militants from Al Qaeda, a Sunni group. The president has denied the accusation.

Like the war in Syria, the conflict in Yemen has taken on the appearance of a geopolitical proxy battle. The Houthis are viewed as allies of Shiite Iran, which is engaged in a regional battle for regional influence with Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni nation wary of the Houthi and other Shiite movements.

Al-Alaya'a is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.