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After Days Of Clashes, Rebels Seize Yemen's Presidential Palace


In his state of the union address last night, the president spoke about confronting Islamic extremism; that often means going after al-Qaida. One important ally in that fight is Yemen's president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But his rule is now being challenged by a rebel group, the Houthi. It is a chaotic scene right now in Yemen, and we spoke earlier with Reuters correspondent Yara Bayoumy in the capital, Sana'a.

YARA BAYOUMY: This whole thing started back in September, when the Houthi fighters came and took over Sana'a. And basically what happened in the last couple of days - it's been, like, sort of a reinforcement of this takeover. So, yes, what they have done is they've surrounded President Hadi's presidential palace. They have also surrounded his home.

When I went past President Hadi's home this morning, we first saw that the sentry posts, where presidential guard units would normally be, were completely empty. And at the entrance of his home, there were a number of Houthi fighters with a military vehicle hanging around. About an hour later, we saw, slowly, a few presidential guards sort of coming out. But in general, it would be accurate to say that the Houthis are in control of all of the major institutions in the capital.

GREENE: Well, let me just find out a little bit more about who they are. These are rebels who come from a particular religious and ethnic group, the Houthi. I mean, what exactly do they want? And tell me a little bit more about them.

BAYOUMY: They're a Shiite group, but they're also of a strand of Shi'ism that is very close to the Sunni strand of Islam, which is what most of Yemen is. For years they have been fighting the government up in the North for more autonomy, and they've been doing that for the last decade now. And they fought several wars with the central government. But it's only in the last year that that war has kind of left its confined area in the North and has expanded across the country. And really in September, when they took over the capital, no one - I mean, it really took everyone by surprise. And I spoke to a diplomatic source, and he told me if they were in control at 60 or 70 percent back in September, they are now 100 percent.

GREENE: Well, Yara, you know, we have spoken about - on this program recently - how important Yemen is in the fight against terrorism and in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which, you know, is in Yemen, and active in Yemen. If the Houthi do actually control the country, I mean, what sort of relationship do they have with the West?

BAYOUMY: Well, they make their relationship pretty clear. If you go around Sana'a, you will see many, many checkpoints that they've set up with their signposts that are very ubiquitous right now in green and red that say, death to America, death to Israel. So that gives you an idea of how they feel about the United States at least. Since they've taken over the capital in Sana'a, they have also expanded their battles in areas - in other parts of Yemen, in central Yemen, where they have also been fighting al-Qaida.

You know, yesterday the Houthi leader, when he spoke, he also spoke of al-Qaida as a conspiracy that is being imposed on Yemen. So while they're also fighting al-Qaida on the ground in some parts of Yemen, it's still not really clear what kind of comprehensive strategy they might have to fight this group. But I will also say that this is a criticism that has been levied against the government itself, which at the best of times haven't also been able to control many parts of the country, and has also had a very hard time fighting al-Qaida here.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to Reuters correspondent Yara Bayoumy, who is in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, describing a very uncertain situation at this point. Yara, thanks very much.

BAYOUMY: Thank you very much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.