SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis rallied on Friday in the capital and across the country against an armed Shiite rebel group which has been holding its own sit-in demanding a new government and the reinstatement of fuel subsidies.
Protesters supporting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi packed Change Square in the capital Sanaa, carrying banners reading "For the sake of Yemen unity." Nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) away, supporters of the Shiite Hawthi group expanded their sit-in alongside the main airport road.
Extra security forces and army units were deployed in the capital to separate the rival demonstrators. For two weeks now, authorities have been on alert, and the country's top security body has warned of Hawthi rebels carrying arms, taking positions on rooftops and setting up tents near at least three ministries.
The Hawthis waged a six-year insurgency that officially ended in 2010. The following year, the country was convulsed by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that eventually forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as part of a U.S.-backed deal that gives him immunity from prosecution and left his party with a large share of parliament and government.
Hadi, who belongs to Saleh's party, is at odds with former president and has accused him of trying to undermine his efforts to carry out wide-ranging reforms, particularly in defense and security.
Flags of the ruling General People's Congress party have been seen in Hawthi demonstrations, but a top member of the party, Ahmed al-Messiri, said that Saleh's decision to join ranks with the Hawthis -- whom he had fought as president -- "was disappointing to a large number of party leaders and members."
"Today the party position suddenly changed," he added.
The Hawthis have scored a string of victories in recent months battling Sunni Islamic militants in northern Yemen. Analysts say the battlefield advances may have encouraged the Hawthis to try to take over the capital, and critics view the demonstrations as a thinly-disguised power grab.
A presidential negotiator sent to the Hawthis' leadership in the northern city of Saada told The Associated Press that negotiators are discussing ways to reduce the impact of the lifting of subsidies in addition to earlier promises to reshuffle the cabinet.
He added that talks will be held on Saturday between all political parties and representatives from the government to discuss the crisis. It's not clear if the Hawthis will attend the meeting, which will be chaired by Hadi.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Yemen's allies, including the United States, have expressed opposition to the Hawthis' show of force, and the U.N. Security Council is holding a session on Friday to discuss the escalation in the capital.