Tribes protest ‘coup’ by Shiite militia in Yemen

Sunni demonstrations flare up across country after Houthis dissolve parliament

Houthi Shiite Yemenis wearing army uniforms hold their weapons during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Hani Mohammed)
Houthi Shiite Yemenis wearing army uniforms hold their weapons during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s Shiite Houthi militia dissolved parliament Friday and created a “presidential council” to fill a power vacuum, drawing Washington’s rebuke and protests at home against what demonstrators called a “coup.”

The militia, which controls the capital Sanaa, said it would set up a 551-member national council to replace the legislature in the violence-wracked country, a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda.

A five-member presidential council will form a transitional government for two years, the Houthis announced in a “constitutional declaration” which also mentioned a “revolutionary council” to “defend the nation.”

Sunni tribes in the eastern, oil-rich province of Marib cried foul and hundreds of people took to the streets of Sanaa in protest.

“We reject the authors of this coup in Sanaa,” a spokesman for the influential Marib tribes, Sheikh Saleh al-Anjaf, told AFP.

Youth activists, who played a key role in the 2011 uprising that forced out veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh, released a statement saying they “reject the hegemony of the Houthi militia.”

Hundreds of people protested around Sanaa university to denounce the Houthis, but the militiamen fired into the air to disperse them and arrested six people, witnesses said.

In Taez, Yemen’s third-largest city, protest tents were pitched outside the local government building against what anti-Houthi demonstrators called “the coup d’etat,” residents said.

Protests also erupted in the western city of Hudeida and in Aden, Yemen’s second city in the south where the governor, Abdel Aziz bin Habtur, called the Houthi declaration “a plot against the constitution.”

Yemeni female Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman said the declaration was “null and void” and expected the people to rise against the Houthi “coup,” and “liberate” the capital.

A senior American official, speaking in Munich after Secretary of State John Kerry met leaders of Yemen’s Gulf neighbours, said the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council “don’t agree” with the Houthi “presidential council,” while the UN Security Council raised the prospect of possible sanctions.

Liu Jieyi, president of the Security Council, said the body’s 15 members were ready to “take further steps” if negotiations to halt the unrest were not resumed “immediately.”

The heavily armed Houthis swept into Sanaa from their northern stronghold in September, seeking greater influence in running the country.

Last month they seized the presidential palace and key government buildings, prompting President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah to tender their resignations.

The Houthi declaration bore the signature of Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, a relative of militia chief Abdel Malek al-Houthi described as “the president of the revolutionary council.”

The council “will take all the necessary measures to defend the sovereignty of the nation, ensure its stability and security and guarantee the rights of citizens,” the declaration said.

It came after a Wednesday deadline set by the militia for political parties to resolve the crisis passed with no agreement.

Yemen has been riven by instability since the Arab Spring-inspired uprising that forced the autocratic Saleh from power in 2012.

He has been accused of backing the Houthis, who are from the same Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, as has Shiite-dominated Iran.

The fall of Hadi’s Western-backed government has sparked fears that impoverished Yemen — strategically located next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and on the key shipping route from the Suez Canal to the Gulf — would plunge into chaos.

Hadi said when he stepped down that he could no longer stay in office as Yemen was in “total deadlock.”

Formerly Saleh’s deputy, Hadi took office in 2012 under a UN- and Gulf-backed peace plan, emerging as a consensus figure.

Yemen is a country awash with weapons where powerful tribes hold sway, but Hadi, unlike Saleh, had no popular or tribal base to fall back on.

The situation escalated last month when the militia seized one of Hadi’s aides in apparent protest at a draft constitution that would have divided Yemen into six federal regions which they oppose.

In the formerly independent south, where separatists are demanding autonomy, officials have vowed to defy Sanaa following the resignation of Hadi, a southerner.

Yemen is an important power base for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for last month’s deadly attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Sanaa has allowed the United States to carry out repeated drone attacks on Al-Qaeda militants on its territory.

On Friday Al-Qaeda said it attacked the Houthis’ Saada stronghold in the north, when regional governor Mohamed Jaber Awadh survived a bomb attack on his convoy, official media said.

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