Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Wednesday said he has reached an agreement with Houthi rebels who've besieged his residence, offering to scrap a proposed constitutional change that they opposed.
The Shi'ite Muslim rebels, in turn, have agreed to withdraw from their positions and release a top official, kidnapped Saturday. They had replaced the guards outside the presidential palace Wednesday, further pressing their control of the capital, Sana'a.
The concessions came after three days of violence in Sana'a. They appeared to ease a standoff that raised alarms across the Gulf region, at the United Nations and in Washington, which relies on the current Yemeni government in its battle against Yemen-based al-Qaida militants.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said monitoring the situation in Yemen is a priority for the United States.
"The Houthis had obviously what you can only call violent objections to the refusal of the Hadi government to accept all of their demands with respect to the way forward, and particularly the peace and partnership agreement, and its implementation," he said.
"The Houthis have declared that Hadi is still the president," Kerry said. "At this moment, we're waiting to have another conversation with President Hadi to make a determination from his point of view of exactly where things stand."
A presidential statement also offered a broader vision of unity for deeply fractured Yemen. It noted that Houthis and members of the southern separatist Hirak movement have a right to be appointed to all state institutions.
Rallies in Taiz
Before the agreement was announced, anti-Houthi protesters had held rallies in Taiz. And authorities in the southern city of Aden closed the airport there Wednesday, saying the move was to protest Houthi attacks on Hadi's power and the country's sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Gulf Arab foreign ministers Wednesday condemned what they called a "coup d'etat."
Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who support Hadi and oppose Iranian influence in the region, denounced what they called terrorist acts by the Houthis and their allies. They demanded that state bodies be returned to government control and that Hadi's chief of staff, detained by the Houthis last week, be released.
The council — composed of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — also expressed support for the "constitutionally legitimate authority" of Hadi, and rejected "all measures aimed at imposing change by force."
'Take all measures necessary'
The ministers, who met in an emergency session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, warned that Gulf states "would take all measures necessary to protect their security, stability and vital interests in Yemen."
Rebel leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said in a televised speech late Tuesday that his faction wanted an end to what he called "corruption and totalitarianism" in Yemen. He stopped short of calling for the government's ouster.
Arab media earlier had reported the Houthis were demanding 50 percent of key ministerial positions as part of an earlier power-sharing agreement. Al Jazeera TV said the Houthis also insisted that 1,000 of their fighters be incorporated into the army and 1,000 more be incorporated into the police.
The United Nations Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called for a cease-fire and the restoration of the government's full authority.
Houthi seek greater rights
Houthi forces, calling for greater rights for Yemen's Shi'ite minority, overran Sana'a in September.
On Saturday, the Houthis kidnapped Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the president's chief of staff, as the government was trying to draft a new constitution.
Yemen has been buffeted for years by conflict on sectarian, tribal, and regional lines. The Houthi movement has spread beyond its traditional rebellion in the north as separatists continue to press their cause in the south.
The country also has had to contend with a growing Islamist movement sympathetic to the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose strongholds are in the south and west. AQAP has claimed responsibility for attacks both at home and abroad, most recently on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this month.
The U.S. relies heavily on the Hadi government in its fight against AQAP. A key component of that relationship has been its willingness to allow U.S. drone strikes against AQAP targets.
The Shi'ite Houthi movement fiercely opposes the militant Sunni AQAP. But it also objects to U.S. interference in Yemen.
The current crisis is not about AQAP, the Soufan Group, a New York-based risk consultancy that advises major corporations, explained in an intelligence brief Wednesday. "But it does have the strong potential to benefit the group at a cost to the rest of the country, since AQAP thrives off of chaos, violence and increased sectarian strife.
"Regional actors Iran and Saudi Arabia are inflaming the situation as each seeks to block the influence of the other."
Houthi expansion to the oil-rich Marib region has been thwarted by al-Qaida and Sunni tribes aligned with them.
Yemeni Sunnis view the Houthis as proxies for the Shi'ite government of Iran, something they deny. They also dispute claims they are linked to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shi'ite who nonetheless battled the Houthis on and off for a decade. His 30-year rule was brought to an end in Arab Spring protests two years ago.
But the rebels have enjoyed close ties with Iranian-sponsored groups such as Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian Islamist group funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and designated a terror organization by the United States and the European Union. And there have been accusations of Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shia movement, helping to train the Houthis.
Israeli analyst Ephraim Sneh, a retired general and former Israeli deputy minister, wrote that with December meetings between the Houthis and Islamic Jihad representatives, the "Iranian government seeks to gain leverage on the southern doorstep of its archrival Saudi Arabia."
Iranian officials deny they have been stoking sectarian flames, but the Houthis recently gained control of the Yemeni port city of Hodeida and of the shoreline close to Saudi Arabia’s Ras Isa marine terminal.
"This takeover is of great strategic importance," Sneh said in an opinion article for the al-Monitor news site. "For the first time, Iran has a foothold in the southern gate of the Red Sea, literally on the Bab El-Mandab Strait, which separates Asia from Africa."
Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, said unresolved political tensions in Yemen could feed into sectarian Saudi Sunni and Iranian Shiite strife in the region.
“We’re facing a series of proxy wars that really are challenging the state structures in the Middle East," he said. "The Houthis can’t pretend alone to govern all of Yemen, but they might pretend to govern part of it. I think we’re in very dangerous territory.”
Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo. Jamie Dettmer and Sharon Behn also contributed. Additional material came from Reuters and AFP.