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Shi’ite rebels violently disperse demonstrators in Yemen | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Yemeni women shout slogans during a rally against the occupation of the capital by Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Sana’a, on January 26, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS)

Yemeni women shout slogans during a rally against the occupation of the capital by Shi'ite Houthi rebels in Sana'a, on January 26, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS)

Yemeni women shout slogans during a rally against the occupation of the capital by Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Sana’a, on January 26, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS)

Sana’a, AP—Shi’ite rebels armed with knives and batons attacked and detained demonstrators Monday protesting against their power grab in Yemen’s capital, witnesses said.

The Houthi rebels seized Sana’a in September and days of gunbattles last week ended with them placing the president, prime minister and top Cabinet members under house arrest. After reaching a tentative deal with the Houthis, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the prime minister later quit their posts, though parliament hasn’t accepted their resignations.

As protesters converged Monday on Sana’a’s Change Square—the epicenter of Yemen’s 2011 uprising—Houthi militiamen attacked protesters and journalists and smashed photographers’ cameras. It wasn’t clear how many people they detained.

A well-known activist, Adel Shamsan, said in an audio testimony circulated by Yemeni activists on Twitter that the Houthis brought “thugs” who chased the protesters and accused them of being “American agents.” Shamsan said he was briefly detained before being let go.

The violent dispersal came as Sana’a University students staged a demonstration inside campus, as armed Houthis in military uniforms brandished Kalashnikov assault rifles outside.

The Houthis, who hold many state institutions since sweeping into the capital from their northern stronghold, say they only want an equal share of power. Critics say they want to retain Hadi as president in name only, while keeping an iron grip on power. They also accuse the Houthis of being a proxy of Iran, an allegation the rebels deny.

The power vacuum has raised fears Yemen’s Al-Qaeda’s branch, which claimed the recent attack on a French satirical weekly and is targeted by US drone strikes, will only grow more powerful as conflict takes on an increasingly sectarian tone. The Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni terror group are sworn enemies.

On Sunday, US President Barack Obama defended his counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, saying his approach “is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have.”

He ruled out deploying US forces there, saying it “would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve.”

Monday’s demonstrations also followed the breakdown of UN-sponsored talks between the Houthis and several Yemeni political parties on Sunday.

An official with the leadership of a party present at Sunday’s meeting says the Islamist Al-Islah party pulled out of the talks along with the Socialist and Nasserite parties. The official says the group rejects dialogue with Houthis, and called for peaceful protests against them.

The parties demand the release of a group of 11 activists and journalists the Houthis detained earlier on Sunday during protests against them in Sana’a.

On Sunday’s marches, the Houthis scuffled with the demonstrators, firing automatic rifles into the air to disperse the crowd and breaking journalists’ cameras.

At another anti-rebel protest Sunday in the capital, some 200 demonstrators gathered in Change Square and marched toward the presidential palace.

By nightfall, the streets were clear and the city silent. Just a day earlier, tens of thousands of people marched across the country to denounce the rebels, mainly adherents of a Shi’ite sect who swept down from their northern strongholds last summer.

They control several cities and say they are fighting corruption and want a greater share of power, including more influence over the writing of a new constitution.

President Hadi remains at his private residence, surrounded by Houthi forces who run checkpoints across the capital and patrol the streets in pickups mounted with machine guns.

Houthis also surrounded the headquarters building of the country’s air force on Sunday, the officials added, preventing its top officer from entering.

Also in Sana’a on Sunday, a car bomb exploded, injuring 5 people including one seriously, security officials said.

Meanwhile, officials with the office of UN envoy Jamal Benomar say he is continuing his efforts to forge an agreement between the different Yemeni political forces.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information otherwise.