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Jan 26, 4:56 AM EST

Shiite rebels violently disperse demonstrators in Yemen


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SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Shiite rebels armed with knives and batons attacked and detained demonstrators Monday protesting against their power grab in Yemen's capital, witnesses said.

The Houthi rebels seized Sanaa in September and days of gunbattles last week ended with them placing the president, prime minister and top Cabinet members under house arrest. After reaching a tentative deal with the Houthis, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the prime minister later quit their posts, though parliament hasn't accepted their resignations.

As protesters converged Monday on Sanaa's Change Square - the epicenter of Yemen's 2011 uprising - Houthi militiamen attacked protesters and journalists and smashed photographers' cameras. It wasn't clear how many people they detained, though witnesses said they saw rebels attack those gathered there.

The violent dispersal came as Sanaa University students staged a demonstration inside campus, as outside, armed Houthis in military uniforms brandished Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The Houthis, who hold many state institutions since sweeping into the capital from their northern stronghold, say they only want an equal share of power. Critics say they want to retain Hadi as president in name only, while keeping an iron grip on power. Critics also say they are a proxy of Iran, an allegation the Houthis deny.

The power vacuum has raised fears Yemen's al-Qaida's branch, which claimed the recent attack on a French satirical weekly and is considered by Washington to be the terror group's most dangerous affiliate, will only grow more powerful as Yemen slides toward fragmentation and the conflict takes on an increasingly sectarian tone. The Shiite Houthis and Sunni terror group are sworn enemies.

On Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his counterterrorism strategy in tumultuous Yemen, saying his approach "is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have."

"The alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve," Obama told journalist on a visit to India. He also said Yemen "has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability."

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