Houthi rebels stand guard outside Yemeni president’s home

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SANAA, Yemen (CNN) — One rebel unit with a tank stood guard outside President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s private residence in Yemen’s capital on Wednesday, amid uncertainty over who is in control of the volatile nation after two days of turmoil.

One militiaman told CNN that “the people” are now president of Yemen.

Houthi rebels — Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country — overtook the presidential palace in the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday, marking what a government minister called “the completion of a coup.” There were also reports of clashes near the President’s residence.

The chaos in Yemen is of deep concern to the United States and its allies because Yemen’s government has been a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group linked to attacks like the recent slaughter at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. AQAP also tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit in 2009. Power vacuums often benefit terrorist groups.

As for Hadi, he is said to be inside the presidential residence — but it is unclear what is happening inside, or whether he has any loyal guards with him.

A senior leader of the Houthi resistance movement, Abdullah Shabaan, told CNN that the “President’s personal security left him, which forced us to gather hundreds of fighters from our security to ensure he is safe.”

President ‘has no control’

Yemen’s Minister of Information Nadia Sakkaf on Tuesday called the Houthis’ takeover of the presidential palace “the completion of a coup.”

“The President has no control,” she told CNN, as clashes raged.

The Prime Minister’s residence was also under attack from the street, Sakkaf said.

The regime still controlled the city of Aden on Tuesday, and it closed the port of Aden as well as roads leading into and out of Sanaa, according to Yemeni state TV, which is controlled by the government.

As of Wednesday, it was still unclear whether a coup had in fact taken place.

Victims of ‘false promises’

“We are the victims of corruption and false promises,” Houthi rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said Tuesday in a televised address on a network controlled by Houthis and based in Beirut, Lebanon. “The government did not respect the peace and partnership deal from September. We are trying to bring some legitimacy to the government.”

He complained of economic struggles and poverty. Al-Houthi also said there is an international conspiracy to link Yemen to the attacks in Paris.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack, and U.S. investigators have worked on the assumption that attacker Said Kouachi met the late terrorist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki at some point in Yemen and received orders from AQAP, a U.S. official told CNN. The Houthis and AQAP are adversaries in the long-running Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Tuesday’s developments came a day after heavy fighting between government forces and Houthis left nine people dead and 67 others injured, Yemen’s Health Ministry said, before the sides agreed to a ceasefire.

Gunfire could be heard sporadically across Sanaa on Tuesday.

U.S. Embassy vehicle comes under fire

Unknown assailants also fired shots Monday night at a U.S. Embassy vehicle carrying U.S. diplomatic personnel in Sanaa, the U.S. Embassy said Tuesday. No injuries were reported.

Two U.S. Navy warships moved into new positions in the Red Sea late Monday to be ready to evacuate Americans from the embassy if needed, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the planning told CNN.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday on “all sides to immediately cease all hostilities, exercise maximum restraint, and take the necessary steps to restore full authority to the legitimate government institutions.”

Members of the U.N. Security Council were briefed by the U.N. special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, and later issued a statement expressing their concern about the crisis.

They stressed that Hadi is the country’s “legitimate authority”and called on all sides in Yemen to stand with him and his government.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also urged all sides to step back from conflict.

Fighting in Sanaa around the presidential palace and targeting the Prime Minister’s convoy “clearly aim at derailing Yemen’s democratic transition,” she said in a statement.

“Violence and conflict impede the government from delivering services and the international community from assisting the country, making Yemen’s poorest people suffer the most,” she added.

Prolonged turmoil

Houthis swept into the capital last year, sparking battles that left more than 300 dead in a month. In September, they signed a ceasefire deal with the government, and Houthis have since installed themselves in key positions in the government and financial institutions.

But tensions flared again last weekend as Houthis said they abducted presidential Chief of Staff Ahmed bin Mubarak in Sanaa on Saturday. Osama Sari, senior media adviser to the Houthi movement in Yemen, said Houthis detained bin Mubarak because the President wanted to introduce a new constitution without the Houthis’ approval.

Ban and Mogherini both appealed Tuesday for his immediate release.