Shiite rebels shelled the residence of Yemen’s leader and swept into the nearby presidential palace Tuesday in what a top army commander said was an unfolding coup.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — an important U.S. ally in the fight against the highly lethal Yemeni branch of al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for the newspaper-office attack in Paris — was unharmed, authorities said. But his grip on power appeared increasingly precarious.
The rebels, known as Houthis, took over the capital Sanaa in September as part of a long power struggle with Hadi; they effectively govern several other cities as well.
It was unclear whether they intend to seize power altogether or allow the internationally backed president to remain in office.
In a lengthy speech aired by the group’s media network, rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said that “all options are open” and that the escalation “has no ceiling” if Hadi does not speed up implementation of a U.N.-brokered peace deal.
That deal would grant the Houthis greater power over a commission that has been assigned to draft a new constitution and outline a new federal system. Critics of the Houthis say they are using the U.N. deal as a pretext to seize more power.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the rebel violence is undermining American military and intelligence operations against the al-Qaida branch, which claimed to have carried out the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this month.
Washington has long viewed the Yemeni branch, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the global terror network’s most dangerous affiliate.
On Tuesday, after an emergency meeting, the U.N. Security Council called for a lasting cease-fire and condemned the violence. In a statement approved by all 15 members, the council asserted that Hadi “is the legitimate authority.”
The Houthis appear determined to redraw a 2012 road map backed by Arab Gulf states and the West that compelled then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down following months of protests against his three-decade rule.
The Houthis’ expansion into Sunni-dominated areas of the country threatens to inject sectarianism into what until now has been mainly a struggle for power. Al-Qaida, which is at war with the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, stands to benefit.