SANAA: Houthi rebels battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace Monday morning, witnesses said. The status of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was not immediately clear.
Witnesses nearby told The Associated Press that heavy machine gun fire could be heard as mortars fell around the palace. Civilians in the area fled the fighting as columns of black smoke rose over the palace.
The Houthis’ al-Maseera satellite television channel accused the army of opening fire on a militia patrol in the area of the presidential palace, sparking the violence. A Yemeni military official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, said the Houthis provoked the attack by approaching several checkpoints and military positions in the area.
There was no word on state media about the violence as Sanaa was suffering a power outage at the time. Those able to watch Yemen state television saw a prerecorded musical performance.
The Houthis seized large areas of Yemen, including Sanaa, last year as part of their protracted power struggle with Hadi. Critics say the Houthis are a proxy for Shiite Iran, charges the rebels deny.
Hadi took over the presidency after a popular revolt toppled his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2011. In recent days, the Houthis kidnapped Hadi’s chief of staff, widening the conflict. In a statement, the Houthis said at the time they abducted the man to disrupt a meeting scheduled for the same day that was to work on a new constitution and the reorganization of the country into federally organized regions.
Saleh is widely considered to be backing the Houthis. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said they believed tribal fighters loyal to Saleh were racing into Sanaa to back the Houthis in the fighting.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has suffered years of turmoil since the Arab Spring. It also is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by the U.S. to be the most dangerous arm of the terror group. That group has said it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris “as revenge for the honor” of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The U.S. has carried out a campaign of drone strikes in the country targeting suspected militants. Civilian casualties from those strikes have angered Yemenis.