Yemen Militia Clash with Army, Fire on PM's Convoy

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Shiite militia fought pitched battles with the army in Yemen's capital and the prime minister's convoy came under fire Monday in the biggest challenge yet to President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi's rule.

Officials reported that the militia, known as Huthis, had seized control of state media, as they tightened their hold on Sanaa after overrunning the capital in September.

At least two people were killed and 14 wounded in the clashes which erupted near the presidential palace and in other parts of Sanaa, medical sources said.

Prime Minister Khalid Bahah escaped unharmed as Huthi fighters fired on his convoy after he left Hadi's residence, Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said.

Bahah had been meeting with the president and a Huthi representative, she said, as Yemen's US-backed government scrambled to bring about a ceasefire.

Sakkaf said that the convoy of the Huthi representative also "came under fire", but did not elaborate.

In a worrying sign for the government, Sakkaf said the Huthis had taken total control of state television and the official news agency.

"Yemeni satellite channel is not under state control, nor is state news agency Saba. The Huthis have completely controlled them and are refusing to publish any government statements," she wrote on Twitter.

The Huthis also said they had seized an army base on a hill overlooking the palace.

Strategically important Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and is on key Gulf shipping routes, has been wracked by unrest for months, raising fears it could collapse into a failed state.

Monday's unrest came after Hadi's chief of staff was abducted on Saturday as the Huthis press for concessions in the writing of a new constitution.

Shelling and gunfire could be heard as smoke rose over parts of the city, and residents fled many neighborhoods.

Witnesses said the fighting erupted early Monday after the militia deployed reinforcements near the presidential palace.

The military presidential guard sent troops onto the streets surrounding the palace and outside Hadi's residence.

A security official said the army intervened when the Huthis began to set up a new checkpoint near the presidential palace. 

But a prominent Huthi chief, Ali al-Imad, accused the presidential guard of provoking the clashes.

"Hadi's guard is trying to blow up the situation on the security front to create confusion on the political front," he said on his Facebook page.

Tensions have been running high in Sanaa since the Huthis abducted Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, in an apparent bid to extract changes to a draft constitution that he is overseeing.

Mubarak is in charge of a "national dialogue" set up after veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power in February 2012 following a year of bloody Arab Spring-inspired protests.

The Huthis said they had seized the top aide to prevent the violation of a UN-brokered agreement they reached with Hadi, which provided for the formation of a new government and the appointment of Huthi advisers to the president.

It stipulated that in return the Huthis would withdraw from key state institutions they had seized.

Mubarak's kidnapping came just before a meeting of the national dialogue secretariat to present a draft constitution dividing Yemen into a six-region federation, which the Huthis oppose.

The rebels, who hail from Yemen's remote north and fought a decade-long war against the central government, rejected the decentralization plan last year, claiming it divides the country into rich and poor regions.

Mubarak was one of the representatives in the dialogue of the separatist Southern Movement, which seeks autonomy or secession for Yemen's formerly independent south.

On Sunday, the governor of Shabwa warned that oil companies operating in the southern province would turn off the taps if the Huthis failed to release Mubarak.

A southern official confirmed Monday that workers at three oil fields producing around 50,000 barrels per day in Shabwa and at the Balhaf gas terminal had walked out at midnight.

The official warned of "further escalations" to press the Huthis to release Mubarak.      

Since their takeover of the capital, the Huthis, also known as Ansarullah, have pressed their advance into areas south of Sanaa, where they have met deadly resistance from Sunnis including Al-Qaeda loyalists.

Yemen's branch of the jihadist network, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is considered its most dangerous and claimed responsibility for this month's attack in Paris on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead.

Hadi's government has been a key ally of the United States in its fight against al-Qaida, allowing Washington to carry out regular drone attacks on militants in its territory. 

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