Fierce clashes broke out Monday around the Yemeni presidential palace between guards and fighters from the Houthi Shiite movement.
Gunshots and artillery fire could be heard in the area. Witnesses said that Houthi reinforcements were arriving and the presidential guard was deploying tanks around the palace, which lies in the south of Sana’a.
Security forces and Houthis traded blame for what started the clashes, the most serious in the capital since the Shiite militia took effective control of the city in September.
A security official, who asked not to be named, told dpa that the fighting started after a Houthi patrol approached the perimeter of the presidential palace, forcing guards to open fire.
Houthi official Ali al-Quhum confirmed that the clashes had started when presidential guards opened fire on a Houthi patrol and said the militiamen were acting in self-defence.
The fighting comes two days after Houthis abducted President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi’s chief of staff in the capital.
Ahmad bin Mubarak was on his way to officially present Hadi with a copy of the country’s new draft constitution, which provides for a six-region federal system.
The Houthis oppose the planned map, which would split areas of northern Yemen where they are influential between three federal regions.
The abduction of Bin Mubarak, who is secretary general of the commission drafting the constitution, has led to an angry reaction in his native southern Yemen.
The Houthis, who seek to revive the Zaydi Shiite traditions of Yemen’s historically dominant northern highlands, have expanded across much of northern and central Yemen during the past year.
Their criticism of corruption and of wealthy power brokers in Sana’a has won them support outside the Zaydi heartland in the far north, but they have been accused of collaborating with ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, also faces an insurgency by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has increasingly attacked the Houthis in recent months.
The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda last week claimed responsibility for the January 7 attack in Paris on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Habdo.