Houthi rebels say they've taken over Yemen

Followers of the Houthi movement shout slogans during a gathering to show support to the movement, outside the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Feb. 4, 2015.

REUTERS

SANAA, Yemen -- Yemen's Shiite rebels announced on Friday that they were taking over the country and dissolving parliament, marking their formal takeover of the government and finalizing a power grab that has been months in the making.

The rebels, known as Houthis, took control of the capital, Sanaa, in September, after descending from their northern stronghold and fighting their way into central Yemen, seizing several other cities and towns along the way.

According to the rebels, a "transitional national council of 551 members" was to immediately replace the elected parliament. That "transitional" administration would last two years, according to the statement. At the executive level the government would be led by a "presidential council" consisting of five members, to be elected by the council.

The rebels said the council would be tasked with drafting a new constitution, which would be subjected to a public referendum.

Their escalating dominance -- which included a raid of the presidential palace and a siege of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's residence -- forced the president and all Cabinet members to submit their resignations in January.

Since then, Hadi and the ministers have been under house arrest. The rebels issued a deadline, which expired on Wednesday, for Yemen's political parties to negotiate what they called an "acceptable" way forward. Otherwise, they threatened they would act unilaterally.

The announcement about the constitutional declaration was broadcast on the rebels' television network, Al-Masseria TV. And text messages sent by the rebels told reporters the declaration would be released from the Republican Palace in Sanaa. The move goes against Yemeni law, which stipulates that only a president can issue constitutional declarations.

The Houthis, who are believed to be backed by Iran, called their supporters to take to the streets for evening celebrations, which were expected to follow the declaration. They also deployed armed men and pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns on main streets and around key institutions.

The development comes after days of failed talks sponsored by U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar.

Mohammed al-Sabri, a top politician from a multi-party alliance called the Joint Meeting Parties, described the Houthis' actions as a "coup," predicting it would lead to "international and regional isolation of Yemen."

Last year, the U.N. Security Council placed two Houthi leaders and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- also believed to be a main backer of the Houthis -- on a sanctions list for their role in derailing Yemen's transition.

"They are a militia, not a political group," said al-Sabri.