Shi'ite rebels shell Yemen state TV, hundreds flee fighting in dramatic escalation

A destroyed building is seen at the site of Shi'ite rebels car bomb attack in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district on September 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A destroyed building is seen at the site of Shi'ite rebels car bomb attack in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district on September 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SANAA (REUTERS, AFP) - Armed Shi'ite rebels shelled Yemen's state-run television building in Sanaa on Friday and hundreds of residents were fleeing in a dramatic escalation of violence after weeks of fighting and protests in the capital, local officials said.

The worsening security situation forced international airlines to suspend flights to Yemen’s main airport for 24 hours, authorities said earlier on Friday.“Arab and foreign airlines have decided to suspend their flights to Sanaa for 24 hours because of developments in the capital,” the Civil Aviation Authority said overnight.The measure could be extended or reconsidered depending on the security situation, it said in a statement carried by the official Saba news agency.

The move follows fighting between Shiite rebels, known as Huthis or Ansarullah, and Sunni Islamists backed by troops. Nearly 40 people were killed in violence just outside the capital on Thursday.

The Houthi fighters pushed into Sanaa after clashing with the army on the outskirts of the capital on Thursday. Residents said the rebels were advancing along Thalatheen Street, a major route into the western edge of Sanaa.

One military source said around 70 Houthi fighters were killed in fighting overnight, and residents told Reuters dozens of bodies were scattered in the north and northwest of the capital where the clashes took place.

The fighting was creeping closer to the private residence of president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi on the northern end of Siteen Street, residents said. One of the capital's main avenues, Siteen Street starts at the airport in the north and runs all the way to the official Presidential Palace, to the south.

Shi'ite Houthi gunmen had taken over some army and security checkpoints on Siteen Street and the northwest al-Shamlan district with almost no resistance from government soldiers, residents said, adding the Houthis were patrolling the streets and no government forces were seen nearby.

The rebels started firing mortars at the state-owned television channel building in Sanaa on Thursday night and the channel said the shelling was continuing on Friday morning. "The Houthi group is continuing to shell the television building with all kinds of weapons until this moment," it said in a news alert on its screen.

An employee trapped inside the TV building, which is located near other vital state institutions, said he was hiding in the basement along with dozens of others. "The shelling on the channel has increased in a terrible way. We are surrounded and the army forces outside are trying to protect the building and fire back at (the Houthis)," he said by telephone.

Internet access and mobile phone services appeared to be cut off in the capital on Friday, though landline phones were still working.

Hundreds of residents were rushing to flee the neighbourhoods where the fighting was taking place and push towards the south. "The shells fell on the house next door so I took my wife and kids and went towards the south of the capital. We left everything behind," one resident told Reuters.

Some petrol stations in Sanaa were packed with drivers jostling to fuel their cars with petrol.

The Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, have been involved in a decade-long conflict with the Sunni-dominated government, fighting for more control and territory in the north.

In recent weeks, Houthi protesters have been blocking the main road to Sanaa's airport and holding sit-ins at ministries calling for the ousting of the government and the restoration of subsidies cut by the state in July as part of economic reforms.

Yemen is also struggling with a secessionist movement in the south and the spread of an Al-Qaeda insurgency.