In a stunning sweep of the Yemeni capital, the country’s Shiite rebels seized homes, offices and military bases of their Sunni foes on Monday, forcing many into hiding and triggering an exodus of civilians from the city after a week of fighting that left 340 people dead.
It was the latest development in the Hawthi blitz, which has plunged volatile Yemen into more turmoil, pitting the Shiite rebels against the Sunni-dominated military and their Islamist tribal allies.
The heavily armed Hawthi fighters on Monday seized tanks and armored vehicles from military headquarters they had overrun, and raided the home of long-time archenemy Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the army’s elite 1st Armored Division and a veteran of a series of wars against the Shiite rebels, as well as residences of top Sunni Islamist militiamen or the fundamentalist Islah party.
Al-Ahmar himself fled and was forced into hiding, along with his followers, as the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, succeeded in mediating a deal on Sunday between the Shiite Hawthis and their rivals and the fighting died down. But the Hawthis made no concessions.
After flooding into Sanaa, the Hawthis also took strategic installations and key state buildings, though they claimed later to have handed them back to the army’s military police.
Thousands of Hawthi fighters — including many youths — were the only visible force Monday on the streets of the capital. They drove army tanks and armored vehicles they looted from al-Ahmar’s forces out of the city, heading north, likely to the Hawthis’ heartland in the city of Saada.
The group’s spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the rebels will hunt down those who committed violence against them, indicating the possibility of wider revenge attacks against opponents.
Observers say the Hawthis’ battlefield success reflects a major change in Yemen’s political landscape, with traditional sources of power — Sunni Islamists, allied army generals and tribal chiefs — losing their grip as the central government gave in to the Shiite rebels to avert a full-blown civil war.
Mansour Hayel, a Yemeni political analyst, compared the Hawthi sweep to the rampage in Iraq and Syria by Sunni militants from the Islamic State group.
“The situation is very disturbing,” Hayel said. “The state withdrew its control over institutions and the Hawthis and their affiliates replaced it. They are all over the city.”
The Hawthis signed the U.N.-brokered deal on Sunday, an agreement that gave them unprecedented influence in the presidency and over the Cabinet. It calls for an immediate cease-fire and the formation of a technocratic government within a month after consultations with all political parties.
According to the deal, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is to appoint key advisers — from both the ranks of the Hawthis and the pro-separatist factions in the south.