Yemeni Shiite rebels' sweep into country's capital kills 340, changes political landscape



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SANAA, Yemen — In a stunning sweep of the Yemeni capital, the country's Shiite rebels seized homes, offices and military bases of their Sunni foes on Monday, forcing many into hiding and triggering an exodus of civilians from the city after a week of fighting that left 340 people dead.

It was the latest development in the Hawthi blitz, which has plunged volatile Yemen into more turmoil, pitting the Shiite rebels against the Sunni-dominated military and their Islamist tribal allies.

The heavily armed Hawthi fighters on Monday seized tanks and armored vehicles from military headquarters they had overrun, and raided the home of long-time archenemy Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the army's elite 1st Armored Division and a veteran of a series of wars against the Shiite rebels, as well as residences of top Sunni Islamist militiamen or the fundamentalist Islah party.

Al-Ahmar himself fled and was forced into hiding, along with his followers, as the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, succeeded in mediating a deal on Sunday between the Shiite Hawthis and their rivals and the fighting died down. But the Hawthis made no concessions.

After flooding into Sanaa, the Hawthis also took strategic installations and key state buildings, though they claimed later to have handed them back to the army's military police.

Thousands of Hawthi fighters — including many youths — were the only visible force Monday on the streets of the capital. They drove army tanks and armored vehicles they looted from al-Ahmar's forces out of the city, heading north, likely to the Hawthis' heartland in the city of Saada.

The group's spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the rebels will hunt down those who committed violence against them, indicating the possibility of wider revenge attacks against opponents.

Observers say the Hawthis' battlefield success reflects a major change in Yemen's political landscape, with traditional sources of power — Sunni Islamists, allied army generals and tribal chiefs — losing their grip as the central government gave in to the Shiite rebels to avert a full-blown civil war.

Mansour Hayel, a Yemeni political analyst, compared the Hawthi sweep to the rampage in Iraq and Syria by Sunni militants from the Islamic State group.

"The situation is very disturbing," Hayel said. "The state withdrew its control over institutions and the Hawthis and their affiliates replaced it. They are all over the city."

The Hawthis signed the U.N.-brokered deal on Sunday, an agreement that gave them unprecedented influence in the presidency and over the Cabinet. It calls for an immediate cease-fire and the formation of a technocratic government within a month after consultations with all political parties.

According to the deal, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is to appoint key advisers — from both the ranks of the Hawthis and the pro-separatist factions in the south.

However, the Hawthis abstained from signing an appendix to the deal that stipulates that they abide by the cease-fire, withdraw from Sanaa and other northern cities, and surrender their weapons to the government.

Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest nations, is facing multiple challenges. An al-Qaida branch in the south poses a constant threat as it tries to impose control over cities and towns. Washington considers the Yemeni branch to be the world's most dangerous arm of al-Qaida and has helped support Yemeni government offensives against it with drone strikes.

The Hawthis waged a six-year insurgency that officially ended in 2010. The following year, an Arab Spring-inspired uprising forced then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012 as part of a U.S.-backed deal giving him immunity from prosecution.

After Saleh's ouster, a power-sharing deal brokered by Yemen's neighboring Gulf Arab states and Western allies gave the Islah party along with the rest of the opposition half of the Cabinet and parliament seats. The other half went to Saleh's party.

The Hawthis opposed the deal, which sidelined them completely and which likely contributed to their further disenchantment with the government in Sanaa.

Before going into hiding, al-Ahmar and Saleh's successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, met briefly at the president's office on Sunday, according to an official at the presidency.

They argued, and the general failed to convince the president to send warplanes against the Hawthis, the official said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the content of the closed-door meeting. "Hadi choose the best of the worst options ... to avoid a civil war."

The Yemeni army is also fractured, something that was apparent when the Hawthis swept into Sanaa and several state institutions were taken over without a fight as commanders abandoned their posts, said military officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity to talk to the media.

Hawthis also took over the offices of the Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood's chapter in Yemen, which on Sunday also signed the U.N.-brokered deal.

The rebels also stormed the house of Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman, an Islah sympathizer. She wrote on her Facebook page on Monday that the Hawthis broke her doors, searched it and slept in her children's room.

The Islah party called on its members to "stay home" and lay low.

"Don't get dragged to calls of violence and revenge. You are a political party and you are not responsible for protecting state institutions," said top Islah official Zaid al-Shami, according to a statement posted on the party's website.

Hadi, deeply weakened by the latest crisis, told a Cabinet meeting on Monday that the U.N. deal was "a big achievement for the sake of safeguarding Yemen from disasters, war, and fragmentation."

But many think the crisis is far from over.

"In a country awash with weapons, we will enter a war where everyone is against everyone," said Abdel-Bari Taher, a veteran Yemeni journalist and author.

Hayel, the analyst, said there are increasing fears Yemen will be torn apart with sectarianism, intertwined with tribalism, which will "blow up the whole country."

Thousands of Sanaa residents have already fled the city, while those who stayed hunkered down in their homes, fearful of new clashes and looting. Long lines of cars loaded with suitcases and food were seen leaving the capital for the countryside Monday.

Schools, banks and government offices were all closed while Sanaa's northern and western districts, the scenes of fierce battles, were badly damaged by the past week's relentless shelling. Many buildings were pockmarked by gunfire and bodies of fighters were left rotting on the streets.

Resident Ahmed al-Hamdani said he saw Red Crescent staff carrying away bodies from the street he lives on. Some of the bodies were torn apart or had no limbs, he said.

Yemeni medical officials said 200 more bodies were retrieved from Sanaa streets on Monday, bringing the death toll to 340 in the week-long battles.


Michael reported from Cairo.

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