Backers of Yemen rebels gather in Sanaa amid crisis talks

The rally came on the final day of an ultimatum set by the Shiite Zaidi rebel commander, Abdulmalik al-Houthi

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Thousands of supporters of Shiite rebels pressing the government to step down gathered in the Yemeni capital Friday as a presidential team was in the northern Houthi stronghold for crisis talks.

The rally came on the final day of an ultimatum set by the Shiite Zaidi rebel commander, Abdulmalik al-Houthi.

He urged supporters to gather for weekly Muslim prayers on the road leading to Sanaa International Airport in the north of the capital.

The protest marks the start of the ‘second phase of the peaceful revolutionary escalation’ through ‘legitimate means,’ according to Houthi.

Thousands poured into the gathering site from Sanaa’s outskirts, an AFP correspondent reported, while security measures remained unchanged across the capital.

Thousands of armed Shiite rebels, also known as Ansarullah or Huthis, have strengthened their positions around Sanaa as they press their campaign to force the government, which they accuse of corruption, to step down.

The protesters also want a steep increase in petrol prices to be revoked.

The movement has raised fears of a new wave of violence in impoverished Yemen, which is in political transition at a time of an Al-Qaeda insurgency and southern separatist demands.

Bracing for an escalation at the weekly prayers, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi on Thursday urged the armed forces to ‘raise their level of vigilance’.

In response, the rebel commander vowed in a speech: ‘We will not remain with our arms folded ... if the armed forces attacked protesters.’

Meanwhile, a presidential delegation was holding talks with the Houthi commander in his northern stronghold of Saada to convince his group to join a national unity government.

Houthi said late Thursday that the delegation had ‘shown understanding for some of our demands’ but negotiations and protests would continue.

The Zaidi rebels strongly oppose the government’s plans for a six-region federation, demanding a single region for the northern highlands and a greater share of power in the federal government.

They control Saada province in the far north and parts of several neighboring provinces.

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