Yemen President, Houthis Reach Agreement as Tensions Remain High

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A file picture taken on April 2, 2013 shows Yemeni President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi speaking with his Russia's counterpart Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. AFP/Natalia Kolesnikova

Published Thursday, January 22, 2015

Updated at 5:05 pm (GMT +2): A senior official of Yemen's Houthi movement said on Thursday that a statement by President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi aimed at defusing a political crisis was acceptable because it confirmed the terms of a power-sharing agreement signed in September.

Witnesses said Houthi fighters remained in position outside the presidential palace and Hadi's private residence, where the head of state actually lives. Hadi in his statement said the Houthis had agreed to remove their men from those places.

"The latest agreement is a series of timed measures to implement the peace and partnership accord, which shows that Ansarullah were not planning to undermine the political process," Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo, told Reuters, referring to an accord signed in September. Ansarullah is the Houthi group's official name.

"The agreement is satisfactory because it confirms what is most important in the partnership agreement," he added.

The withdrawal of the gunmen, and the release of presidential aide Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak could happen in the next three days if the authorities committed to implementing the agreement fully, Bukhaiti added. Bin Mubarak remains in the hands of the Houthi militiamen.

Under a nine-point deal reached late on Wednesday, the militia pledged to withdraw from government buildings they seized this week during two days of violence that left at least 35 people dead and dozens wounded.

In return for concessions over a disputed draft constitution, they agreed to vacate the presidential palace, free bin Mubarak, withdraw from areas surrounding the residences of Hadi and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah, and abandon checkpoints across the capital.

A Houthi official told Reuters he expected Hadi to announce a decision on government posts, after which the group would begin procedures for the release of bin Mubarak and the gradual withdrawal from the presidential buildings.

"And the complete withdrawal will coincide with the completion of all the decisions related to the deal signed yesterday," the Houthi official said, declining to be identified.

But Yemen's Information Minister Nadia al-Saqqaf expressed skepticism over the Houthi's intentions. "Ahmed Mubarak is still (the) Houthis' hostage," she wrote on her Twitter account. "They got what they want. Why they should fulfil their promise?"

A source close to the presidency said the Houthis have "gradually" begun to withdraw from Hadi's private residence. "Presidential security will be redeployed to their positions in the next two days," the source told Reuters.

Uncertainty reigns

The Houthis agreed with Hadi to "normalize" the situation in Sanaa, calling for people to return to work and schools to reopen.

Shops in Sanaa reopened on Thursday and people were back on the streets. But tensions remained high and Sanaa University remained shut.

"Sanaa is over," said Mohammed al-Usaimi, a 45-year-old construction worker who lives near Hadi's residence.

"There's no more security and no more work regardless of what they say about the return of life back to normal. This will not happen."

Hundreds protested outside Sanaa University calling for a "new revolt" and chanting: "No to coups!"

Meanwhile, clashes erupted in central Yemen on Thursday, with local tribesmen saying they were pushing back Houthi fighters who were trying to capture an army base in Marib province.

Half of Yemen's oil and more than half of its electricity are produced in Marib, which is also where the main gas fields are located. Its chief export pipeline carries around 70,000-110,000 barrels per day of Marib light crude to the Red Sea.

"The Houthis came with many fighters with the aim of storming the base of the 7th Brigade and tribesmen are fighting them back," one tribal leader told Reuters.

Tribal leader Sheikh Hamad bin Waheet said local tribes had agreed with Marib's governor and the head of the army to protect the province from Houthis or other aggressors. "Armed tribesmen from Bayda province and al-Jawf are also coming and we'll defend Marib," he said.

The Houthis want to replace the governor, who they say is too close to Saudi Arabia and to General Ali Mohsen, a Sunni Islamist-leaning general.

Insecurity and political turmoil have mounted in Yemen since 2011 protests ousted former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh is thought to be backing the Houthis.

The northern-based Houthis established themselves as power brokers in Yemen in September by capturing Sanaa against scant resistance from Hadi's administration, who appears not to have a full grip on the country's fractious military.

The Houthi insurrection is one of several security challenges in Yemen, which borders oil exporter Saudi Arabia and is struggling with a secessionist movement in the south and the spread of an al-Qaeda insurgency.

The Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, have been involved in a decade-long conflict with the government.

Prior to the emergence of the Houthis as Yemen's de facto top power in September, Houthi protesters blocked the main road to the capital’s airport and held sit-ins at ministries calling for the ousting of the government and the restoration of subsidies cut by the state in July as part of economic reforms.

The expansion of Houthis since September has angered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which views Shias as heretics and Houthis as pawns of both the US and Iran.

In a statement, Hadi, an ally of Saudi Arabia, the West and staunch supporter of US drone attacks on AQAP — which claimed a series of deadly attacks in and outside Yemen including the January 7 attack in Paris on a French satirical journal — said Houthis had a right to serve in posts in all state institutions, and a draft constitution that has been a source of disagreement between him and the Houthis was open to amendment.

"The draft constitution is subject to amendments, deletions, streamlining and additions," said the statement. All sides agreed government and state institutions, schools and universities should rapidly return to work, it added.

In the first sign that the government was returning to work, officials in the southern city of Aden said the air and seaports had resumed work after a one day suspension due to the crisis in Sanaa.

US and Yemen’s Gulf neighbors

The instability in Yemen has raised fears that the country, next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and key shipping routes from the Suez Canal to the Gulf, could become a failed state along the lines of Somalia, as it struggles to recover following the ousting of Saleh.

On Wednesday, Gulf neighbors denounced what they described as a coup in Yemen.

A source close to the president said Hadi had met a Houthi official and denied the head of state was under house arrest inside his residence.

Yemen is a key US ally in the fight against AQAP, allowing Washington to conduct a longstanding drone war against the group on its territory.

However, US drone attacks in the impoverished Gulf country have also killed many civilians unaffiliated with al-Qaeda.

Top US diplomat John Kerry said Wednesday that Hadi was "going to accept if not all, most of, the objections that the Houthis had," as news of the deal emerged in Sanaa.

"The Houthis had... violent objections to the refusal of the Hadi government to accept all of their demands with respect to the peace and partnership agreement and its implementation," Kerry said after talks with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

“That had led to violence and "some of the institutions had broken down, and they're in trouble," Kerry said.

He stressed the powerful rebels had declared that Hadi was still president, and US officials were waiting to hold another meeting with the beleaguered Yemeni leader.

"Things are quiet in Yemen as of a little while ago. Our personnel are well-protected, we have strong and multiple personnel there," he said.

UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar meanwhile arrived in the country and was expected to head a meeting of political rivals later in the day, a source close to the Moroccan diplomat said.

Earlier, US officials said Washington was closely monitoring the crisis as officials revealed a US diplomatic vehicle was attacked late Tuesday.

The US military is ready to evacuate American diplomats and other personnel from Yemen, defense officials told AFP, but the State Department has so far not ordered the embassy to close.

Power-sharing

Speaking hours after his fighters' display of force on Tuesday, Houthi Leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi warned Hadi that he had to implement a partnership agreement that would ensure all Yemeni factions have a fair governmental representation.

The Houthis, rebels from the north drawn from a large Shia minority that ruled a 1,000-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, stormed into the capital in September but had mostly held back from directly challenging Hadi until last week.

They accuse the president of seeking to bypass a power-sharing deal signed when they seized Sanaa in September, and say they are also working to protect state institutions from corrupt civil servants and officers trying to plunder state property.

The Houthi-backed power-sharing deal gives the group a role in all military and civil state bodies. The Houthis, who say the accord has not been implemented fast enough, also demand changes to the divisions of regional power in a draft constitution.

Abdel-Malek's speech left little doubt however that his movement was now in effective control of the country, as Al-Masdar newspaper referred to him as "the president's president.”

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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