19 January 2015
Last updated at 08:08
Houthi fighters took up positions on streets near the presidential palace on Monday
Fierce clashes between soldiers and Shia Houthi rebels have taken place near the presidential palace in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
Heavy gunfire and explosions were heard near the compound and the residence of the national security chief.
The Houthis’ TV channel reported that the clashes erupted after troops fired on a rebel patrol. A military official said the Houthis provoked the attack.
Rebels have patrolled Sanaa since they overran the city last September.
A UN-brokered peace deal between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthis saw the rebels agree to withdraw from the capital once a new unity government was formed.
However, the rebels have remained in place and since expanded their presence in mainly Sunni central and western parts of the country.
‘Bodies in streets’
Columns of black smoke rose over the presidential palace on Monday as soldiers and Houthi fighters fired heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at each other’s positions.
Soldiers blocked roads leading to the presidential palace after the clashes erupted
Tensions between the government and the Houthis have risen in recent days
Activist Hisham al-Omeisy wrote on Twitter that bodies lay in the streets.
The presidential guard has reportedly deployed reinforcements to the streets around the palace and outside the residence of President Hadi.
There was no word on state media about the clashes, but the Houthi’s TV channel, al-Maseera, accused soldiers of opening fire without reason on a rebel patrol near the presidential palace.
An unnamed Yemeni military official told the Associated Press that the Houthis provoked the attack by approaching military positions in the area and setting up their own checkpoints.
There were also reports of gunfire and explosions in the Hadda district, in the south of the city. A witness told the Reuters news agency that he saw gunmen in a street that is home to several senior government security officials, including the defence minister.
Tensions between the government and the Houthis, which were already running high, escalated when rebels abducted the president’s chief of staff on Saturday.
The rebels said they seized Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak to disrupt a meeting he was to attend that day on the draft constitution, which they oppose, and to prevent September’s peace deal “from being broken”.
The Houthis, who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism, have staged periodic uprisings since 2004 in an effort to win greater autonomy for their northern heartland of Saada province.
They consolidated their control over Saada during the 2011 uprising that forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
Since July the rebels have inflicted defeats on tribal and militia groups backed by the leading Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and battled jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has vowed to defend the country’s Sunni community.
Opponents allege that the rebels ultimately hope to reinstall the Zaidi imamate, which ruled North Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962.