Yemen's embattled president and rival Shiite rebels were holding talks Tuesday amid a tense ceasefire, a day after heavy street fighting engulfed the capital, Sanaa, killing at least nine people and dragging the impoverished Arab nation into deeper turmoil.
Sanaa remained on edge, with armed Houthi rebels roaming the streets on foot and in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. They also manned checkpoints across Sanaa and near the prime minister's residence in an indisputable show of force, and beefed up their presence around other key building, including the intelligence headquarters.
On Monday, the Houthis seized control of state media in Sanaa and clashed with Yemeni soldiers near the presidential palace in the biggest challenge to U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government since September, when they swept in from the Houthi northern stronghold and seized the capital.
Witnesses said heavy machine gun fire could be heard as artillery shells struck around the presidential palace. Civilians in the area fled as columns of black smoke rose over the palace and sirens wailed throughout the city. By the end of the day, a tentative ceasefire was in place and held through the night and into Tuesday.
At least nine people were killed in the fighting and 67 were wounded, Yemen's deputy health minister, Nasser Baoum, told The Associated Press. Both Houthis and Hadi's forces blamed each other for Monday's outbreak of violence. The fighting, described by one official as a coup attempt by the Houthis, also threatened to undermine efforts by the United States and its allies to battle al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate, which claimed responsibility for the attack on a Paris satirical magazine this month. Washington has long viewed Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the Yemeni branch is known, as the global terror network's most dangerous affiliate.
At the presidential palace on Tuesday, Hadi and a Houthi adviser met to negotiate the makeup of an 85-member commission tasked with coming up with the outline of Yemen's future federation, as stated in the draft constitution, Cabinet spokesman Rageh Badi, told the AP over the phone. According to the official news agency SABA, Hadi also met with his advisers and members of the country's top security body.
"Today, we are at a crossroads, either to be or not to be," he was quoted as saying. Reforming the commission has long been overdue and was part of a U.N.-brokered peace deal following the Houthis' capture of Sanaa.
But the Houthis accuse Hadi of violating that deal by calling in the current members of the commission to a meeting days ago, prompting the rebels to retaliate and abduct his top aide, Ahmed bin Mubarak, and setting the wheels in motion for Monday's spasm of violence.
The Houthis' powergrab in the capital and expansionist aspirations in central Yemen, where Sunni tribesmen dominate, also threatens to transform the current conflict into a sharply sectarian one, pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
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