SANAA, Yemen – Thousands of protesters demonstrated Friday across Yemen, some supporting the Shiite rebels who seized the capital and others demanding the country's south secede after the nation's president and Cabinet resigned.
President Abed Rabbo Hadi, a U.S. ally in its campaign against Yemen's local al Qaeda branch, stepped down Thursday with his Cabinet over the pressures by Houthi rebels who demanded a bigger share of government power. A faction of southerners, who oppose the Shiite power grab and live in what was a separate country until 1990, have seized the opportunity to press their case for independence.
In Sanaa, which Houthis seized during their offensive in September, thousands of supporters converged on the capital's airport road. They raised green flags and banners proclaiming their slogan -- "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam" -- a variation of a popular Iranian slogan often chanted by Shiite militants in Iraq and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The Houthis are Zaydis, a Shiite minority that makes up about a third of Yemen's population. Their movement began as a small insurgency in Yemen's northern Shiite heartland which battled the Yemeni army for years until 2010. After President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster in 2012, he was widely suspected to have formed an alliance with his former foes and of helping the Houthis make military advances across the country.
Critics of the Houthis charge that are backed and financed by mostly Shiite Iran, a charge that they deny. In return the Houthis accuse Hadi of being in league with al Qaeda. The local al Qaeda affiliate -- which has been declared by the U.S. government the most active and dangerous such group in the word -- also bitterly opposes the Houthis and has battled them on several fronts.
Checkpoints manned by Houthi fighters brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles and pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns dotted the capital. Houthi militias also remained outside Hadi's house, holding him under a de facto house arrest. Gunmen also continued besieging houses of government ministers.
In the south, thousands protested Friday in Yemeni city of Aden, raising the flag of the formerly independent Southern Yemen over Aden airport and the local security headquarters building, witnesses said.
Representatives of the Houthis, who also refer to themselves as Ansar Allah, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the group welcomes the resignations and are currently "brainstorming" different scenarios for a next step.
Among these scenarios, one official said, is the formation of a "salvation council" with representatives from the north and the south. But that initiative is likely to be opposed by Southern political leaders who are bitterly opposed to the Houthi takeover of the capital and several other major Yemeni cities.
The international aid group Oxfam, which has been working in Yemen for more than 30 years, warned in a new report released Friday that Yemen is on "the brink of humanitarian disaster with millions of lives at risk."
Half of the country's population is in need of humanitarian aid, and nearly a million Yemeni children suffer malnourishment, the report said. The group urged the international community to help end the conflict.