BEIRUT

Middle East

Thousands of armed rebels flood Sanaa

Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi group brandish their weapons during a gathering near Sanaa August 20, 2014.REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA: Thousands of armed Shiite rebels in Yemen strengthened their positions in the country’s capital Sanaa Wednesday as they pressed their campaign to force the government to resign, AFP correspondents witnessed.

The rebels have been fighting an off-conflict with government troops in the northern mountains for the past decade, but analysts warned their bid for a greater share of power in a promised new federal Yemen was creating a potentially explosive situation.

The Zaidi Shiites are the minority community in mainly Sunni Yemen, but they form the majority in the northern highlands, including the Sanaa region.

Rebel activists used cranes to build walls around protest camps across the capital, where protest leaders have given the government a deadline of Friday to meet their demands.

In a bid to stem the crisis, President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi called for dialogue with the rebels and invited representatives to join a “unity government.”

But the protests, fueled by a steep increase in petrol prices, are increasing in momentum with demonstrators showing no signs of backing down.

Rebel commander Abdulmalik al-Houthi said Sunday that the authorities must address protesters’ grievances by the end of the week or additional forms of “legitimate action” would take place.

Men armed with Kalashnikovs manned checkpoints around the protest camps Wednesday, while Yemeni military aircraft circled in the skies of the capital.

On the ground, there was little visible sign of a police or military presence near the protest sites. “Our actions are peaceful but if the activists are attacked we will cut the hand of the aggressor,” said Abu Ali al-Asdi, a spokesman for the demonstrators.

There was also tension in the south of the capital where hundreds of armed men had built a vast encampment close to the main road linking Sanaa to the south.

“The government will fall Saturday,” declared Mohammad al-Hojari, an armed rebel stationed on the edge of the camp, where vehicles continued to bring protesters.

The Zaidi rebels, known as Houthis from the name of their leading family, are strongly opposed to the government’s plans for a six-region federation, demanding a single region for the northern highlands and a bigger share of power in the federal government.

“The Houthis are capitalizing on widespread frustration with the government and the recent rise in fuel prices to rally support and extract political concessions,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist with the International Crisis Group.

“What is happening now appears to be increasingly dangerous political bargaining as part of the Houthis’ bid to become a dominant political force in the north and in the national government,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

Thousands of armed Shiite rebels in Yemen strengthened their positions in the country's capital Sanaa Wednesday as they pressed their campaign to force the government to resign, AFP correspondents witnessed.

The rebels have been fighting an off-conflict with government troops in the northern mountains for the past decade, but analysts warned their bid for a greater share of power in a promised new federal Yemen was creating a potentially explosive situation.

Rebel activists used cranes to build walls around protest camps across the capital, where protest leaders have given the government a deadline of Friday to meet their demands.

The Zaidi rebels, known as Houthis from the name of their leading family, are strongly opposed to the government's plans for a six-region federation, demanding a single region for the northern highlands and a bigger share of power in the federal government.


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