SANAA, Yemen — The leader of Shiite rebels who swept through Yemen's capital vowed on Tuesday to go after al-Qaida's branch in the country, a show of the group's strength and confidence as it ignored calls by the government for its fighters to leave the city.
The Shiite rebels known as Hawthis overran Sanaa over the weekend, defeating Sunni Islamist fighters. The rebels signed a peace deal with the government on Sunday and handed over control of key buildings like the Central Bank, state TV building and the cabinet headquarters back over to military police. But the rebel fighters remain virtually in control, setting up checkpoints in the streets, checking IDs of drivers.
The president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, defended himself in an emotional speech Tuesday, insisting that he had not surrendered the capital to the rebels and saying foreign "conspiracy" was at work. It appeared to be a veiled reference to Iran, which he has accused in the past of arming and supporting the Hawthis. Iran denies doing so.
"I understand that you all feel shocked," Hadi said in the televised speech. "You have to know that the conspiracy is beyond any imagination. We were stabbed and we were betrayed. ... It is a cross-border plot where many forces allied together." Hadi said he chose not bring the divided army into a stronger confrontation with the rebels for fear of civil war, and he called on the Hawthis to leave the capital.
The leader of the rebels, Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi, addressed his supporters in the streets in a speech from his northern stronghold on Saada, speaking almost like a head of state.
He said the rebels had removed "the most dangerous obstacles facing the state," a reference to the Hawthis' main opponents — Sunni tribal fighters and a powerful general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is backed by Islamists but was defeated by the rebels.
Al-Hawthi called al-Qaida the "remaining obstacle." He said the way to battle al-Qaida is through building a strong army and security forces with support of the "popular committees," a phrase used to refer to his rebel forces, indicating that they will be part of the war on al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula is the terror group's most dangerous offshoot. The United States has long provided aid to Yemen's counterterrorism forces and regularly carries out drone strikes aimed at al-Qaida militants.
In Sanaa, Hawthi fighters have carried out revenge attacks against their main opponents — the Islah party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Yemen and its allies. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar fled into hiding as the group stormed and occupied his house. Late Monday, the rebels stormed the Islah TV-owned network al-Souhai, owned by Hamid al-Ahmar, a powerful member of the Ahmar tribe.
Violence died out in the capital after Hawthis and political groups signed a United Nations-brokered deal that responds to Hawthis earlier demands to change the government and reinstate fuel subsidies. However, the group refused to sign a security appendix of the deal that would require the group to give up its weapons.