Houthi fighters attacked Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi's residence and seized the presidential palace Tuesday in what Yemeni officials said was a bid to overthrow his embattled government.
The past two days have seen a dramatic escalation in violence in Sanaa, raising fears that Hadi's government, a key US ally in its fight against al-Qaeda, will collapse and the country will descend into chaos.
Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf said the militiamen, known as Houthis, had launched an attack on Hadi's residence, after witnesses reported clashes had erupted at the building in western Sanaa.
He was earlier reported to have been in the residence meeting with his advisors and security officials.
"The Yemeni president is under attack by militiamen who want to overthrow the regime," Sakkaf said on Twitter.
Witnesses said the fighting outside the residence appeared to have subsided after two soldiers were killed.
Prominent Houthi member Ali al-Bukhaiti said on Facebook that the fighters "have taken control of the presidential complex".
In an hour-long speech late Tuesday broadcast on several Yemeni television channels, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, the group's leader, accused Yemen's government of "failing its people".
“The transition could have been used to build a new Yemen, instead authorities have their own interests in mind.
Al-Houthi, a 33-year-old fighter who has been in hiding since a 2004-10 civil war, has transformed himself from a shadow rebel leader into a kingmaker.
In his speech al-Houthi framed his group's struggle in strictly national terms, articulating popular grievances such as rising fuel prices, an end to corruption, and support for the poor, in language reminiscent of the early days of the Arab spring.
“A huge percentage of the Yemeni people are suffering. Nobody thinks of them. Nobody cares. Unfortunately, the political parties are thinking only about their own inner circle, that’s all,” he said.
At the end of the long speech, televised live on Houthi-owned satelite channel al-Masirah, the rebel leader laid out his four demands for an end to the crisis.
He demanded a speedy end to deliberations over the results of a national dialogue, and an expedited new drafting of the country's constitution.
He also laid out his requests for a comprehensive overhaul of the security situation and the swift implementation of the Peace and Partnership Agreement, a deal inked last September that promised Houthis advisory positions in Yemen's government.
A bitter history
For nearly a decade before the Arab uprisings, the Houthis were the underdogs in an on-off civil war with the Yemeni government who accused the group of seeking to establish a Zaydi theocracy. (Zaydism is a branch of Shiite Islam unique to north Yemen, distinct from that practised in Iran.)
The 2011 uprising, however, shifted the dynamics of the conflict.
With the government’s firepower focused on dissenters in the major cities, Saada quietly slid out of its control.
A mini state sprang up, run almost entirely by the Houthis, who took on the responsibilities of government, appointing their own governor, policing the streets, and rebuilding schools and houses destroyed in the war.
With Saleh’s resignation in 2012, the Houthis came in from the cold, sending delegates to take part in the national dialogue conference, they seemed to be making a transition into mainstream politics. But the group retained heavy weapons.
Battling radical Sunni Islamist and tribal militias, the Houthis advanced on the capital.
In July this year they seized the city of Amran, 30 miles north of Sana’a.
For years the government has named the Houthis extremists; financed, it claims, by an Iranian regime seeking to extend its influence across the Middle East.
Recently the Houthis marched through Sana’a, they swapped their usual rallying call: “Death to America, death to Israel, curses on the Jews, victory to Islam” (which resonates with Yemenis in the countryside, beleaguered by US drone strikes) for “the people want the regime to fall” - the famous chant heard across the Middle East.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's shelling of the presidential palace, residents of the central city of Ta'iz took to the streets to denounce what they saw as an illegitimate "coup".
Protesters held signs bearing the slogan "Legitimacy for the state, shame on the Houthis, power to the people".
Protesters hold up a sign reading "No to the coup" (Twitter/@mareb_alward)
A failed president?
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, 69, whose palace compound was seized and residence attacked by Houthi Shiite militiamen on Tuesday, has ruled over Yemen for three turbulent years.
Hadi, who took office in 2012 under a UN- and Gulf-backed peace plan, is a career soldier with no popular or tribal base but who emerged as a consensus figure.
The Houthis seized the palace in Sanaa and attacked his separate residence in what a minister said was a bid to overthrow the president and his US-backed government.
The fate of Hadi, who was reportedly at his residence when it came under fire, was not immediately known but his authority had already been undermined by the Houthis' unopposed takeover of Sanaa in September and Yemen's chronic instability.
Taking over from veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down after an almost year-long and often bloody uprising, Hadi pledged to "preserve the country's unity, independence and territorial integrity".
A major general from restive southern Yemen, Hadi had been vice president since 1994 and secretary general of the ruling General People's Congress party. But he never played a top role in politics before taking over Saleh's powers in June 2011 when the latter was wounded in an attack on his presidential compound. Hadi also was a crucial player in convincing Saleh to sign the UN-backed transition plan in late 2011.
Born on May 1, 1945, Hadi graduated from a military academy in formerly independent South Yemen and also received military training in Britain and Egypt. A unified Yemen was proclaimed on May 22, 1990, four years after Hadi had joined the northern camp. The southerners tried to break away in May 1994, sparking a bloody civil war during which Hadi was appointed defence minister.
He has two daughters and three sons, and has written several books, including one on the military defence of mountain areas.