(Reuters) – Yemen’s powerful Houthi movement fought artillery battles with the army near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Monday, surrounded the prime minister’s residence and drew accusations they were mounting a coup.
Explosions echoed across the city and smoke hung over downtown buildings as the most intense clashes since the Shi’ite Muslim Houthi movement seized the capital in September, throwing the fragile Arab state deep into turmoil.
In the evening, the government said a palace in central Sanaa where the prime minister lives had been encircled by Houthi forces and that Houti representatives were talking with the president.
“Houthis in meeting with president to agree on terms for releasing chief of staff in return for changes in constitution and national authority,” Information Minister Nadia al-Saqqaf said on her Twitter account.
The Houthis’ September takeover made them the country’s de facto top power, and tensions between them and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had been growing since Saturday when they abducted his chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, to gain leverage in a bitter dispute over a proposed new constitution.
Earlier on Monday, Saqqaf said Houthi fighters had fired on Prime Minister Khaled Bahah’s motorcade after he left a meeting with Hadi and a Houthi adviser that had been called to try to resolve bitter disagreements over a draft constitution.
A Yemeni government spokesman described the shooting at Bahah’s armoured convoy as an assassination attempt. Bahah’s residence, the Republican palace, was later cut off.
“The gunmen have surrounded the palace and the prime minister is inside,” government spokesman Rajeh Badi said. Two eyewitnesses confirmed the siege.
Al-Saqqaf earlier told Reuters the presidential palace had come under “direct attack” in what she described as an attempted coup. Hadi was believed to have been at home in another district at the time. “If you attack the presidential palace … This is aggressive, of course it is an attempted coup,” she said.