Yemen militia clash with army, fire on PM's convoy
SANAA - Agence France-Presse
Houthi fighters take up position on a street during clashes near the Presidential Palace in Sanaa January 19, 2015. REUTERS PhotoShiite militia clashed with Yemen's army and fired on a convoy carrying the prime minister on Jan. 19 as pressure mounted on the embattled government of President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
The militiamen, known as Huthis, opened fire on the convoy carrying Prime Minister Khalid Bahah in the capital Sanaa but he escaped unharmed, Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said.
The alleged attack came after fierce clashes broke out near the presidential palace early Monday and following a meeting with Hadi at his residence in western Sanaa.
The US-backed leader's chief of staff was abducted on Saturday as the Huthis press for concessions in the writing of a new constitution.
The president's office issued a statement calling for an "immediate ceasefire" but fighting continued.
Yemen has been wracked by unrest since the Huthis seized control of Sanaa in September, raising fears the strategically important country bordering Saudi Arabia could collapse into a failed state.
Shelling and gunfire could be heard as smoke rose over parts of the city, and residents fled many neighbourhoods.
Witnesses said the fighting erupted early Monday after the militia deployed reinforcements near the presidential palace.
The military presidential guard sent troops onto the streets surrounding the palace and outside Hadi's residence.
A security official said the army intervened when the Huthis began to set up a new checkpoint near the presidential palace.
But a prominent Huthi chief, Ali al-Imad, accused the presidential guard of provoking the clashes, in a statement on his Facebook page.
"Hadi's guard is trying to blow up the situation on the security front to create confusion on the political front," he said.
There were no immediate reports of heavy casualties but a security source said two Huthi militiamen were wounded in the clashes and two pupils hurt when a shell landed in a school.
Tensions have been running high in Sanaa since the Huthis abducted Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, in an apparent bid to extract changes to a draft constitution that he is overseeing.
Mubarak is in charge of a "national dialogue" set up after veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 following a year of bloody Arab Spring-inspired protests.
The Huthis said they had seized the top aide to prevent the violation of a UN-brokered agreement they reached with Hadi, which provided for the formation of a new government and the appointment of Huthi advisers to the president.
It stipulated that in return the Huthis would withdraw from key state institutions they had seized.
Mubarak's kidnapping came just before a meeting of the national dialogue secretariat to present a draft constitution dividing Yemen into a six-region federation, which the Huthis oppose.
The rebels, who hail from Yemen's remote north and fought a decade-long war against the central government, rejected the decentralisation plan last year, claiming it divides the country into rich and poor regions.
Mubarak was one of the representatives in the dialogue of the separatist Southern Movement, which seeks autonomy or secession for Yemen's formerly independent south.
On Sunday, the governor of Shabwa warned that oil companies operating in the southern province would turn off the taps if the Huthis failed to release Mubarak.
A southern official confirmed Monday that workers at three oil fields producing around 50,000 barrels per day in Shabwa and at the Balhaf gas terminal had walked out at midnight on Sunday.
The official warned of "further escalations" to press the Huthis to release Mubarak.
Since their takeover of the capital, the Huthis, also known as Ansarullah, have pressed their advance into areas south of Sanaa, where they have met deadly resistance from Sunnis including Al-Qaeda loyalists.
Yemen's branch of the jihadist network, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is considered its most dangerous and claimed responsibility for this month's attack in Paris on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead.
Hadi's government has been a key ally of the United States in its fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to carry out regular drone attacks on militants in its territory.