Yemen’s U.S.-backed leadership came under serious threat Monday as government troops clashed with Shiite rebels near the presidential palace and a key military base in what one official called “a step toward a coup.”
The militants seized control of state media in fierce fighting that marked the biggest challenge yet to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by the rebels, known as Houthis, who swept down from their northern strongholds last year and captured the capital in September.
The violence threatened to undermine efforts by the U.S. and its allies to battle al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate, which claimed responsibility for the attack on a Paris satirical magazine this month and which Washington has long viewed as the global network’s most dangerous branch.
The Houthis and forces loyal to Hadi have been in a tense standoff for months and the two sides traded blame for the outbreak of violence Monday. Witnesses said heavy machine gun fire could be heard as artillery shells struck around the presidential palace. Civilians in the area fled as columns of black smoke rose over the palace and sirens wailed throughout the city.
Hadi, whose government has ceded control over nearly the entire capital, doesn’t live at the palace, and extra soldiers and tanks deployed around his private residence, which is nearby.
As fighting escalated Monday, the convoys of Yemen’s prime minister and a top official affiliated with the Houthis came under fire, and rebel fighters took over Yemen state television and its official SABA news agency, Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said.
“This is a step toward a coup and it is targeting the state’s legitimacy,” Sakkaf told The Associated Press.
Cease-fire negotiations continued throughout the day by a presidential committee that included the interior and defense ministers, a presidential aide and a tribal sheik close to the Houthis. By the end of the day, a tenuous truce appeared to be holding.
The announcement of a cease-fire came after witnesses said the rebels had seized control of strategic hills that overlook both the palace and the military camp south of it. There was no government confirmation of the loss of territory.
At least nine people were killed in the fighting and 67 were injured, Yemen’s deputy health minister, Nasser Baoum, told the AP.