SANAA (AFP) - Thousands of armed Shi'ite rebels in Yemen strengthened their positions in the capital Sanaa on Wednesday as they pressed their campaign to force the government to resign, AFP correspondents witnessed.
Activists, known as Huthis or Ansarullah, used cranes to build walls around camped settlements across the city, where protest leaders have given the government a deadline of Friday to meet their demands.
In a bid to stem the crisis, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Wednesday called for dialogue with rebels and invited representatives to join a "unity government".
But the protests, fuelled by a steep increase in petrol prices, are increasing in momentum with demonstrators showing no signs of backing down.
Shi'ite rebel commander Abdulmalik al-Huthi on Sunday said the authorities must meet protesters' grievances by the end of the week or additional forms of "legitimate action" would take place.
On Wednesday, men armed with Kalashnikovs manned checkpoints around the encampments while Yemeni air force planes circled above the skies of the capital.
But on the ground, there was little visible sign of a police or military presence near the makeshift protest sites.
"Our actions are peaceful but if the activists are attacked we will cut the hand of the aggressor," Mr Abu Ali al-Asdi, a spokesman for the demonstrators and who was at a site in the west of Sanaa, told AFP.
"The resignation of the government is a popular demand and we are against all forms of corruption," he added.
There was also tension in the south of the capital where hundreds of armed men had built a vast encampment close to the main road linking Sanaa to the south of the country.
"The government will fall on Saturday," declared Mr Mohamed al-Hojari, an armed rebel stationed on the border of the camp where vehicles continued to bring protesters.
Concerned by the gravity of the situation, President Hadi held a meeting with representatives from political parties, the army, and civil bodies who agreed the rebels latest actions were "unacceptable", his adviser Fares al-Saqqaf said.
A delegation is due to meet rebel leader Huthi in his northern fiefdom on Thursday when they will deliver a letter "inviting dialogue and encouraging them to join a unity government".
Ansarullah controls Saada province in northern Yemen and is suspected of wanting to broaden its sphere of influence in a future federal state, potentially comprising six provinces.
Huthi forces reached just outside Sanaa in July when they took over the city of Amran, although they later agreed to withdraw.