The Yemeni president and his Cabinet resigned Thursday, creating a leadership vacuum and raising the prospect of chaos and fragmentation in a strategic Arab nation that has been a pivotal ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
The surprise departure of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government ministers came a day after the embattled administration appeared to have reached an accord with Houthi rebels who surrounded the presidential palace and residence during two tense days of clashes in Sana, the capital.
Hadi, who was backed by the U.S. and much of the international community in an ambitious plan to bring democracy to the impoverished and deeply fractured country, was left a virtual captive of the Houthi militiamen who control the city.
The deal with the rebel leadership appears to have fallen apart, reportedly as Houthi representatives pushed for additional concessions, including the naming of a Houthi vice president. The rebels have yet to retreat from the presidential buildings and release a presidential aide, despite having agreed to do so.
Hadi's departure seems to signal the collapse of an internationally backed leadership transition process for Yemen that followed more than three decades of autocratic rule under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted after "Arab Spring" protests erupted in 2011. Many diplomats had lauded the Yemeni transition plan.
U.S. officials were trying to assess the fallout from the sudden exit of a president who had the backing of the United States and its major regional partner, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen.
Hadi had been a staunch supporter of Washington's war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the West, including the recent assault on the offices of a satirical publication in Paris that left a dozen people dead. U.S. drones frequently targeted Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, though the airstrikes and resulting civilian casualties angered many in the country.
"Our policy hasn't changed," said Eddie Vasquez, a spokesman for the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs division. "We will continue to support every effort towards a political transition. Clearly the events of the last few days have not been steps in that direction."
Officials said that the U.S. Embassy in Sana continued operating with a reduced staff and under heightened precautions and that its security status had not changed during the day.
"We are continuing to closely monitor developments in Yemen and will adjust the embassy's security posture response in accordance to the situation on the ground," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing security.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the collapse of the Yemeni government "potentially catastrophic to our counter-terrorism efforts" there.
If the government isn't reestablished, Schiff said, the U.S. will have lost a critical partner in battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"If the Houthis attempt to govern the country by themselves, it's likely to ignite a major conflict with the Sunni tribes," he said in an interview. "I am very concerned about a resurgence of AQAP," he said, referring to the Al Qaeda affiliate.
A poor and fragile nation grappling with the Houthi insurgency, a southern secessionist movement and Al Qaeda attacks, Yemen was left in an extremely precarious position after the president's resignation. Some commentators worried about a complete collapse of the state and a resulting void that could be exploited by Al Qaeda and other militant groups.
In his resignation statement to the parliament, Hadi struck a tone of despondency and disillusionment.
"I have found that I am not able to achieve the goals of saving Yemen," Hadi declared, offering apologies to the people of Yemen for a political failure. "We have suffered disappointment and difficulties and lack of participation and cooperation from political powers in making Yemen reach the shore of stability."
The parliament is reported to have rejected Hadi's resignation, raising the question of whether he may be obliged to remain in office for a three more months under Yemeni law. If Hadi's resignation holds up, the presidency will pass to the current head of the parliament, Yahya al-Rayi.
Hadi was reported to have refused to reconsider his decision to step down after a meeting in Sana late Thursday with Jamal Benomar, the special United Nations envoy for Yemen.
There were also unconfirmed rumors of Houthi leaders seeking an alternate leadership council, possibly in collaboration with deposed former President Saleh, who has re-emerged as behind-the-scenes power broker in recent days. The ex-strongman still has close ties to the army and tribal leaders and is reported to have formed an alliance with the Houthis.
Hadi, who was elected in 2012 in uncontested voting, is a former army general who had served as Saleh's vice president.
Hadi has not been seen in public in recent days but was said to be in his residence, which is being guarded by Houthi militiamen, members of a northern-based rebel movement that has become the most powerful force in the country. Houthi forces seized the capital in September, and have since been advancing to the east and south.
The Houthis won support from many with promises to crack down on corruption and improve the standard of living in a nation where much of the population is mired in poverty. But perceived heavy handed tactics by Houthi militiamen in the capital have alienated some Yemenis.
Houthis are mostly adherents of a Shiite Muslim sect that accounts for about a third of Yemen's population of 26 million. They have little presence in southern Yemen, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the dominant branch of Islam in Yemen.
The Houthis are avowed enemies of Al Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist group that views Shiites as apostates. Al Qaeda has targeted Houthi civilians and the group's supporters. But Houthis are also hostile to what their leadership views as U.S. and Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs.
Some fear that the Houthis' perceived power grab could exacerbate sectarian tension in Yemen, resulting in the kind of Shiite-Sunni conflict that has convulsed Iraq for much of the last decade. Yemen is a largely tribal nation that has seen relatively little sectarian violence.
The Houthis' emergence also signals another front in the regional rivalry between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia, run by a Sunni monarchy hostile to Iran.
Officials in Saudi Arabia, Yemen's northern neighbor, view the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and are reportedly funneling funds to Sunni tribesmen gearing up to push back any Houthi advance on Marib province, a key oil hub east of the capital.
Demonstrators assailing what they denounced as a Houthi coup took to the streets late Thursday in Sana and other cities, including Taiz, Ibb, and Aden. A group of men in the capital headed toward Hadi's residence in what they called an effort to protect him.
Some clashes were reported in Sana between protesters and Houthi militiamen, who have set up checkpoints throughout the capital and maintained a tight hold on the city.
In southern Yemen, home to a fervent secessionist movement, reports surfaced of authorities defying orders from Sana after the president's resignation.
Houthi leaders have been unwilling to work with the U.S. to plan drone strikes against their common enemy, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
After an average of two drone strikes a month in Yemen last year, no U.S. drone attacks have been launched in Yemen since mid-November, the official said, in part because the flow of information from Yemeni officials about potential targets has slowed.
The modern Republic of Yemen dates to 1990, when north and south Yemen merged into a single nation. A 1994 civil war ended with northern forces vanquishing a southern secessionist movement.
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut. Times staff writers Timothy M. Phelps and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.