SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s powerful Shiite rebels announced on Friday that they have taken over the country and dissolved parliament, a dramatic move that finalizes their months-long power grab.
The development also pushes the impoverished country further into chaos and threatens to turn the political power struggle into a full-blown civil and sectarian conflict, pitting Houthi Shiites against the country’s majority Sunnis, including powerful tribesmen and secessionists in the south.
It could also play into the hands of Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, the world’s most dangerous offshoot of the terror group, and jeopardize the U.S. counter-terrorism operations in the country.
The declaration was read out by TV announcer who said the move marked “a new era that will take Yemen to safe shores.” It was televised to the nation on the rebels’ television network, Al-Masseria TV.
An audience of hundreds of supporters, including former officials, at the Republican Palace in the capital, Sanaa, clapped furiously. Houthi supporters were expected to take to the streets in the capital and celebrate long into the night.
The takeover statement placed Houthis’ security and intelligence arm, known as the “Revolutionary Committee,” as the ruler of Yemen.
The impoverished Arabian Peninsula country has teetered on the brink of fragmentation for the past year but the crisis took a turn for the worse in September, when the Houthis took control of Sanaa after descending from their northern stronghold and fighting their way into central Yemen, seizing several other cities and towns along the way.
Their rising dominance — which included a raid of the presidential palace and a siege of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s residence — forced the president and all Cabinet members to submit their resignations in January.
Since then, Hadi and the ministers have been under house arrest. The rebels issued a deadline, which expired on Wednesday, for Yemen’s political parties to negotiate what they called a way forward, warning that if there was no resolution, they would act unilaterally.
The Houthis also said that “Revolutionary Committee” would act as the country’s government. The committee would also be tasked with forming a new parliament with 551 members. The committee is led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a cousin of the Houthis’ leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi.
The new parliament would then set up a presidential council of five members that would replace Hadi for an interim, two-year period.
The announcement did not give a timetable for elections and gave no indication of Hadi’s fate.
The announcement accused the political parties of “intentionally stalling” and failing to meet the Wednesday deadline, which forced their action, the Houthis said.
The takeover comes after days of failed talks sponsored by the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar.
There was no immediate reaction from Washington, which has been Hadi’s top ally, or the Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. The kingdom is unlikely to welcome the Shiite rebels’ takeover of a country at its doorstep.
Earlier Friday, Mohammed al-Sabri, a top politician from a multi-party alliance called the Joint Meeting Parties, described the Houthis’ actions as a “coup,” predicting it would lead to “international and regional isolation of Yemen.”
Last year, the U.N. Security Council placed two Houthi leaders and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh — also believed to be a main backer of the Houthis — on a sanctions list for their role in derailing Yemen’s transition.
“Today, the Houthis are taking an uncalculated (risk),” said al-Sabri. “They are a militia, not a political group.”
A former member of the Houthis’ political arm, Ansar Allah, described the takeover as “madness” and a “horror movie” that would result in Yemen’s collapse.
“Goodbye Yemen,” wrote Ali al-Bukhiti on his official Facebook page.
Story compiled with information from AP reports.