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Thousands of Protesters Clash With Houthi Rebels After Takeover of Key Yemeni City

Protesters were reportedly beaten back with batons and Houthi rebels fired live ammunition into the air after they seized control of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city.

by Gillian Mohney
Mar 22 2015, 4:53pm

Photo by Anees Mahyoub/Reuters

Thousands of Yemeni citizens took to the streets in protest after Houthi rebels seized control of the country's third-largest city and its airport on Sunday.

The armed Shia rebels reportedly faced no opposition from local leaders as they took over Taiz, a city 160 miles south of the capital Sanaa, along with the city's military airport, according to Reuters.

The move puts more pressure on Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen's embattled former president, who was effectively removed from power after the Houthis swept through Sannaa last September. Hadi resigned from office on January 22 after rebels took over the presidential palace. The Houthis have since continued to firm up their control of regions of Yemen, including the capital and areas in the central and western portion of the country.

A day after Houthi forces, allied with former Presdient Ali Abdullah Saleh, swept into Taiz, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against their presence. The protesters were reportedly beaten back with batons and rebels fired live ammunition into the air, according to the Associated Press. Video footage of the protest showed people scrambling for cover amid gunshots and billowing tear gas canisters. At least one protester was killed, according to local reports.

Related: Yemen: A Failed State 

Hadi escaped Sanaa in February and has remained in the southern city of Aden. Taiz is around 110 miles away from Aden on a main road that runs south from the capital.

The recent move by Houthi forces suggests a major battle could occur between the rebels and armed forces loyal to Hadi. Last week, forces believed to be Houthi rebels attacked Hadi's palace in Aden with a warplane, and rebels stormed the city's airport and other key centers, killing at least 13 people.

Related: What do the protesting Houthis really want in Yemen?

A senior official told the New York Times that the rebels have been flying in supplies and weapons to Taiz, raising expectations for a major offensive.

The takeover of Taiz comes after a week of particularly horrendous violence in Yemen that some fear may plunge the country deeper into civil war. On Thursday, a bomb killed more than 130 people at two Shia mosques in Sanaa, including a prominent Houthi imam.

"There has been a risk of a sectarian backlash for sometime, but so far Yemen has avoided it," Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and Yemen expert, told VICE News earlier this week. "I think there is a widespread fear that this signals Yemen entering the next stage, a stage of sectarian tit-for-tat killing. But it's too soon to tell if that will happen."

The violence in Sanaa and continued skirmishes between Houthis and forces loyal to Hadi led the US, an ally of Hadi, to pull remaining military personnel from the country.

In a statement from the US State Department, government officials cited the "deteriorating security situation," for the evacuation.

"We are concerned that the well-being of all Yemenis now stands threatened by increasing instability, with extremists trying to capitalize on growing volatility as witnessed in the unconscionable March 20 attacks that killed over 130 Yemeni men, women, and children," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

Hadi has asked for "urgent intervention," from the international community in fighting off Houthi rebels, according to Reuters. The United Nations Security Council is scheduled discuss the situation in Yemen this afternoon.

VICE News' Tom Dale and Alice Speri contributed to this report. 

Follow Gillian Mohney on Twitter: @gillianmohney