Thousands Rally against Shiite Militia in Yemen Capital

Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of Sanaa Saturday in the biggest protest yet against a Shiite militia takeover of the capital that has plunged the country into turmoil.

The demonstration came as regions in the formerly independent south stepped up their defiance after the Shiite militiamen, who hail from Yemen's northern highlands and are known as Huthis, tightened their grip on Sanaa.

"Down, down with the Huthis' rule," chanted protesters who rallied following a call by the Rejection Movement -- a group recently formed in provincial areas to challenge the militia.

Women and children joined angry young men on the streets, waving signs that called for "a real government" and burning portraits of the militia leader Abdulmalek al-Huthi.

Demonstrators gathered at Change Square before heading to the Republican Palace, the residence of Prime Minister Khalid Bahah who fled it on Wednesday after a being surrounded by the militia for two days.

But the protesters changed their route and marched toward the home of embattled President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to express their "rejection of his resignation," according to organizers.

Hadi, a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaida, tendered his resignation along with Bahah on Thursday, saying he could no longer stay in office as the country was in "total deadlock".

Those who took to Sanaa's streets on Saturday also demanded that Hadi "impose the authority of the state" in face of the powerful Huthis, said the protest organizers.

Huthi gunmen backed by armored vehicles were deployed along Sittin Street, where the president lives, but they only watched on as the protesters marched. 

The protest ended with the return of demonstrators to Change Square, an AFP correspondent said.

Large demonstrations also took place in the cities of Taez, Ibb and Hudaida, organizers said.

Huthi gunmen, however, later rounded up dozens of youths who took part in protests in Sanaa and Ibb, according to families and witnesses.

Meanwhile, armed tribesmen arrived in Sanaa to force the release of Defense Minister Mahmud al-Subaihi and other top officials whose residences have been surrounded, tribal sources said. 

Parliament is set to hold an extraordinary meeting on Sunday to discuss Hadi's resignation offer, which needs to be approved by lawmakers to take effect.

After heavy fighting between government forces and the Huthis this week that killed at least 35 people, the UN Security Council and Yemen's Gulf neighbors had all voiced support for Hadi's continued rule.

The European Union warned the events put the "remarkable promises of the Yemeni transition in jeopardy," referring to the political process that followed a year of bloody protests that drove former autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office.

France condemned the "forced resignations" of Hadi and Bahah, demanding an "immediate" pullout of militiamen from the capital, according to foreign a ministry spokesman.

The situation escalated on January 17 when the militiamen seized Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, in an apparent bid to extract changes to a draft constitution they oppose because it would divide Yemen into six federal regions.

The Huthis still hold Mubarak and maintain a tight grip on the capital despite a deal struck late on Wednesday to end what authorities called a coup attempt.

The Huthis and their allies "must now take clear public responsibility for their actions," said EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, urging them to release Mubarak and reject violence.

In return for concessions over the disputed draft constitution, the Huthis had pledged to vacate the presidential palace, free Mubarak, withdraw from areas surrounding the residences of Hadi and Bahah, and abandon checkpoints across the capital.

The fall of Hadi's Western-backed government would raise fears of complete chaos engulfing Yemen, strategically located next to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and on the key shipping route from the Suez Canal to the Gulf.

Oxfam warned Friday that 16 million people -- more than half the population -- were in need of aid in Yemen.

"A humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions is at risk of unfolding in the country if instability continues," the aid group said.

In the south, separatists on Saturday seized police checkpoints in Ataq, the provincial capital of Shabwa, as other regions declared they would defy Sanaa following the resignation of Hadi, who is a southerner.

Gunmen in Ataq raised the flags of the formerly independent South Yemen on the seized checkpoints.

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

Saleh has been accused of backing the Huthis, as has Shiite-dominated Iran.

Source: Agence France Presse

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