World

Houthi takeover in Yemen under fire from Sunni majority

A day after taking power, Shia rebels in Yemen found themselves increasingly under pressure Saturday as thousands protested against their rule.

Thousands protest in Saana, Gulf Co-operation Council calls on UN to end coup

Houthi rebels attend a meeting to announce their overthrow of the Yemeni government in Sanaa on Friday. A day after taking power, the Shia rebels faced large protests against their rule. (Fadl Alammdy/Associated Press)

A day after taking power, Shia rebels in Yemen found themselves increasingly under pressure Saturday as thousands protested against their rule and a group of nearby countries denounced their "coup."

The leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdel-Malak al-Houthi, gave an impassioned speech defending dissolving Yemen's parliament Friday as the only response to a power "vacuum" — one his group created by besieging the country's president, who later resigned.

The continuing unrest in the Arab world's poorest country could benefit Yemen's al-Qaeda branch, considered by America as the world's most dangerous wing of the terror group. And while the Houthis oppose al-Qaeda, they also are hostile to the United States and critics say Shia power Iran backs their territorial gains — something the rebels deny.

On Saturday, thousands protested in Sanaa, as well as the cities of Hodeida, Ibb and Taiz. Elsewhere, thousands rallied in support of the Houthis at a sports stadium in Sanaa.

A bomb exploded in a street leading to the capital's presidential palace, wounding three people.

The six Arab countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council, led by Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, issued a statement Saturday carried by the official Saudi Press Agency calling for the UN Security Council to "put an end to this coup."

"The Co-operation Council sees Houthi coup as an escalation that cannot be accepted under any circumstances," the council said.

The council serves as a regional counterbalance to Iran, which the council previously has accused of meddling in their own countries' internal affairs. Saudi Arabia, which long has provided an economic lifeline to Yemen, slashed aid following the Houthi insurrection and shows no sign of restoring it.

In a televised address, rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi repeatedly said his opponents wanted to advance "conspiracies" to cause chaos in a country in turmoil since the Houthis began their offensive in September. On Friday, the rebels dissolved parliament and formally announced they seized power in this country of 24 million people.

"The constitutional declaration … came to end the vacuum," al-Houthi said. "It's all in the interest of the people, and for the people, and for facing these threats and conspiracies against the people."

Palace raided

In January, the rebels raided the presidential palace and besieged the residence of then-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Within days Hadi and his cabinet resigned. They remain under Houthi house arrest.

Hadi was elected as a president in 2012 after a popular revolt toppled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a Zaydi, a branch of Shia Islam that exists almost solely in Yemen. Houthis, who are Zayidis, represent about 30 per cent of Yemen's population.

Saleh waged a six-year-war against Houthis that ended in a cease-fire in 2010. It appeared that the old foes have joined forces during the Houthis' advance from their northern Yemen stronghold. However, Saleh's Congress Party issued a statement Saturday calling the Houthi declaration "an infringement on constitutional legitimacy" and called for renewed negotiations.

A statement from the leaders of three southern provinces also denounced the Houthi takeover as a coup and called Hadi the country's legitimate president. The Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Yemen which opposes the Houthis, said they also rejected the rebels' move and called for renewed talks.

The Houthis' Revolutionary Committee is expected to form a new parliament and a five-member presidential council to succeed Hadi.

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