Updated 12:12 p.m.: Shiite rebels, Yemen's president reach deal
Shiite rebels holding Yemen's president captive in his home reached a deal with the U.S.-backed leader Wednesday to end a violent standoff in the capital, the country's state news agency reported.
The agreement promised to give the rebel Houthi movement more say in the affairs of the Arab world's poorest country in exchange for the group removing its fighters from President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's home, the SABA news agency said.
However, the late-night deal left unanswered who really controls the country and how much power is still held by Hadi, a key ally in U.S. efforts to battle Yemen's local al-Qaida branch.
In the deal, the Houthis also agreed to release a top aide to Hadi that they had kidnapped in recent days.
SABA said the agreement included a clause that would answer the rebels' demands to amend the constitution and expand their representation in the parliament and in state institutions. It also included promises to ensure better representation for Yemen's southerners as well, the deal said.
The agreement also calls on Hadi to shake up a commission tasked with writing a draft constitution to ensure bigger representation for the Houthis.
The draft constitution has proposed a federation of six regions, something the Houthis reject. The agreement reached Wednesday night also ensures that Yemen would be a federal state, but doesn't mention the six region proposal, saying controversial issues will be further discussed.
The agreement, while addressing the immediate Houthi takeover and security concerns in the capital, leaves the contentious political issues unresolved.
The Houthis, who took control of the capital in September, say they only want an equal share of power, while critics say that they prefer presence of Hadi as a symbolic leader while they keep a grip on power. Critics also say the Houthis are backed by Shiite power Iran, something they deny.
The increasingly weakened leadership and power vacuum are setting stage for al-Qaida in Yemen, which claimed the recent attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and failed assaults on the U.S. homeland, to grow more powerful in the chaos.
Aides to Hadi said earlier Wednesday that he was "captive" in his home. Soon after the agreement Wednesday night, there was no visible change in Houthi deployment outside Hadi's house.
— Ahmed Al-Hal/Associated Press
7:17 a.m.: Shiite Houthi rebels tighten grip on capital
Shiite Houthi rebels are in apparent control of all the major institutions in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, a day after they seized the presidential palace and shelled the residence of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The rebels took charge today of a military base that houses ballistic missiles, and they posted guards outside Hadi's residence, according to The Associated Press. The president is said to be unharmed and inside the house.
On Tuesday, rebels took control of the TV building and the official news agency and surrounded the prime minister's house.
Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the Houthi leader whose followers regard him as a saint, in a televised address on Tuesday called the takeover a revolutionary move. The Associated Press reports that he said his group was merely forcing Hadi to implement a U.N.-brokered agreement that gave the Houthis more power.
Yara Bayoumy, a correspondent for Reuters in Sanaa, told NPR's David Greene that signs of Houthi control are apparent.
"When I went past President Hadi's home this morning, we first saw that the sentry posts where the presidential guard units would normally be were completely empty and, at the entrance of his home, there were a number of Houthi fighters with a military vehicle hanging around," she said.
She added: "In general, it would be accurate to say that the Houthis are in control of all of the major institutions in the capital."
The Houthis, who follow a strain of Shiite Islam that is close to the dominant Sunni strand of Islam, were created as a movement in 2004. They have called for greater autonomy for the north of Yemen and for the past year have pushed south toward the capital, capturing territory. The group is considered to be close to Iran. Last September, the Houthis reached Sanaa and took control of the city.
"When they took over the capital ... it really took everyone by surprise," Bayoumy said. "And I spoke to a diplomatic source. He told me if they were in control at 60 or 70 percent back in September, they are now 100 percent."
As NPR's Greg Myre reported, the Houthis and the government reached a deal after September's takeover that allowed the rebels to control parts of Sanaa.
Yemen is a key ally of the U.S. and was recently described by President Obama as a success story in the war on terrorism. Hadi has worked with the U.S. to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is widely seen as the most dangerous al-Qaida franchise and which claimed responsibility for the deadly Jan. 7 attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The Houthis are apparently anti-U.S. — with "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" signs at their checkpoints — but they are also anti-al-Qaida and have been fighting the group in other parts of Yemen.
"They launched a major campaign against al-Qaida in the province of Beqaa," reporter Iona Craig told NPR's Audie Cornish on Tuesday. "And [there has also been] ... a sharp increase in attacks by al-Qaida targeting the Houthis and now trying to push Yemen into a second sectarian conflict."
Yemen, like much of the Muslim world, is predominantly Sunni. The Shiite Houthis live mostly in the north. In protests against the unrest, authorities in Aden, which is the main city in southern Yemen, closed the airport; the port in Aden was also closed.
— Krishnadev Calamur/NPR