Sanaa: Yemen`s powerful Houthi movement fought artillery battles with the army near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Monday, plunging the fragile Arab state deeper into turmoil and drawing accusations that the militia fighters were mounting a coup.
Explosions echoed across the city and plumes of dark smoke hung over downtown buildings as the most intense clashes since the Shi`ite Muslim Houthi movement seized the capital in September brought everyday life to a halt.
The Houthis had seized the state news agency and television station, a government minister said.
Medical sources said five people had been killed and more than 20 wounded. Final numbers were likely to be higher.
The street battles marked a new low in the fortunes of Yemen, plagued by tribal divisions, a separatist challenge in the south and the threat from a regional wing of al Qaeda, which claimed a deadly Jan. 7 attack in Paris on a satirical journal known for mocking Islam.
The Houthis` September takeover made them the country`s de facto top power, a development that has scrambled relationships and raised tensions across the political spectrum ever since.
Information minister Nadia al-Saqqaf, a critic of the Houthis, told Reuters the presidential palace had come under "direct attack" in what she described as an attempted coup.
"If you attack the presidential palace ... This is aggressive, of course it is an attempted coup," she said.
Saqqaf did not name the party she alleged had attacked the palace, but said the Houthis, who have friendly ties with Shi`ite power Iran, were now in control of the state news agency, Saba, and state television.
The palace is defended by the military`s presidential protection unit.
Residents were uncertain about what prompted the violence, which began in the early morning with gunfire and explosions close to the presidential palace and the residence of the national security chief.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was believed to have been at home in another area of the city at the time.
Residents said army gunners had shelled a housing compound used as a Houthi base and smoke was rising from the compound.
Heavy gunfire and explosions shook Hadda district in the diplomatic quarter in Sanaa`s south. A Reuters witness said he could see gunmen in Al-Khamseen street, home to some senior government security officials, including the defence minister.
"On my way to work in the morning in Hadda street, there were gunmen swarming everywhere. They were in military fatigues. Their bazookas bore `Death to America, death to Israel` signs, which is the Houthis` sign," said a hotel worker.
Widely viewed as Iran`s ally in its regional struggle for influence with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis -- now part of the Yemeni government -- said they would "escalate the situation" if their demands for a fair stake in a new constitution were not honoured.
The Houthis demand more rights for the country`s Zaydi Shi`ite sect and say they are campaigning against corruption. They seized Sanaa in September and advanced into central and western regions of Yemen, where Sunni Muslims predominate.
A deal signed later that month between political parties and the Houthis called for the formation of a new unity government followed by the withdrawal of Houthi combatants from the capital. The fighters have remained in place, however.
In a move he described as an attempt to defuse the violence, Saleh al-Sammad, a Houthi member appointed by Hadi as a political adviser in September, issued a statement with a list of conditions addressed to the government.
The conditions include a "fair" and inclusive partnership with Ansarallah, the political wing of the Houthi movement, and omitting sections of a draft constitution that he said violated September`s political agreement.
"If the previous agreement is not honoured, there is commitment to escalate the situation ... and it is difficult to undo the escalation, which will come at a big cost," he said.
The draft constitution, formally launched on Saturday, aims to resolve regional, political and sectarian differences in Yemen by devolving authority to the regions, but has been opposed by the Houthis who fear it will dilute their power.