Leader of Yemen's rebels urges 'peaceful transfer of power'
SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- The leader of Shiite rebels who control the Yemeni capital called for a "peaceful transfer of power" on Tuesday, after his forces released a presidential aide whose abduction set in motion a violent escalation that led to the resignation of the president and the government.
The escalation has plunged impoverished Yemen deeper into turmoil and pushed it closer to fracturing along sectarian and tribal lines. The prospect of a leaderless nation has also raised concerns about Washington's ability to continue targeting Yemen's local al-Qaida branch, which it considers the network's most dangerous.
The Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, in September, after descending from their northern stronghold and demanding a greater share of power. The release of the aide could signal rebels' readiness for de-escalation, given that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had made it a top demand.
Abdel-Malek al-Houthi blamed political forces and southerners for Yemen's chaos despite what many see as a power grab by his Shiite Houthis, who abducted the aide 10 days ago. He called for a meeting to be held to work toward resolving political and security issues while also pledging to take a stand against "anarchists."
"I extend an invitation to all free and honorable people across the spectrum - academics, tribes, elders, all people - to a large, inclusive, broad, exceptional, and historic meeting Friday in Sanaa," al-Houthi said in a speech on the rebels' Masirah TV.
His speech was met with calls by activists and social groups for protests in Sanaa and across the country however. The Socialist Party called on al-Houthi to release Hadi and his government minster from house arrest, and free detained demonstrators as a sign of good faith.
Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy was skeptical about the chances al-Houthi's meeting would produce results, saying that a similar call he made last year led to a meeting packed with Houthi supporters and few dissenting voices.
"Now that he actually has power there's little point for him to listen to other people," Al-Omeisy said.
A representative of the rebels told The Associated Press that the Houthis freed the aide, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, and handed him over to local tribes in the southern province of Shabwa. An official with the president's office confirmed the release. Both the Houthi representative and the official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The rebels abducted bin Mubarak to protest Hadi's decision to proceed with a draft constitution that would divide Yemen into six federal states - something the rebels strongly oppose.
As street battles engulfed Sanaa and shelling rocked the city for days, Houthis seized control of more state institutions, including the presidential palace, military camps and state media.
They also encircled Hadi's residence and that of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. A tentative deal under which Hadi agreed to some political concessions later collapsed and the president, the premier and the entire Cabinet resigned.
The resignations still have to be approved by parliament, which has not convened amid the violence. Also, the mandate of the current lawmakers has long expired.
Houthis say they want a fair share of power, while critics say they want to keep Hadi as a symbolic leader and run the country from behind the scenes.
U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, who is in Sanaa seeking to forge agreement between the warring sides, welcomed the aide's release, saying in a statement that it would "help reduce tensions and enable progress in the on-going negotiations."
Rohan reported from Cairo.