Shia rebels in Yemen known as Houthis shelled the private residence US-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Tuesday, according to information minister Nadia Sakkaf, who described the events as an attempted coup.
Sakkaf posted on her Twitter account that Hadi's home in the capital of Sanaa had come under heavy shelling from armed forces position on nearby rooftops at around 3 PM local time, and that armed militias were trying to overthrow the government. The president was reported to be inside.
Rebels had meanwhile seized the presidential palace. A Yemeni army general told the Associated Press that Houthis were looting the palace's arms depot.
The Houthis also seized the state television channel and news agency, Sakkaf said.
Fighters have seized control of a weapons depot in the palace complex, according to reports.
The attack comes after heavy clashes between government troops and the Houthis began early on Monday morning and continued for hours. Witnesses reported heavy machine gun and artillery fire, as plumes of black smoke rising from central parts of the city. The health ministry said that nine people were killed and 67 injured.
A number of shells landed in civilian areas, according to Yemeni activist Hisham Al-Omeisy.
HHOLY SHIT A SHELL JUST LANDED 300 METERS AWAY FROM ME ON 50M ROAD SOUTH OF CAPITAL SANA— Hisham Al-Omeisy (@omeisy) January 19, 2015
Prime Minister Khaled Bahah's convoy came under fire, although he was unhurt, Sakkaf said, addingthat a Houthi convoy had also been attacked. The information minister suggested that this indicated that a "third party" was involved.
The two sides agreed on a ceasefire after negotiations between senior ministers and tribal chief with links to the Houthis. They were reported to be in peace talks earlier on Tuesday before news of the presidential palace seizure broke.
The Houthis overran Sanaa with little resistance from security forces in September and subsequently reached a UN-sponsored peace deal with the political establishment stipulating the formation of a new national unity government and reforms in government agencies. In return the Houthis are supposed to pull their forces out of cities.
Both sides have repeatedly accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement and the process had already stalled.
Each side blamed the other for sparking Monday's fighting, which came during a period of especially high tensions due to the Houthis' rejection of a draft constitution that would divide the country into six federal states. On Saturday, the rebels abducted Hadi's chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, who has been overseeing the constitution-making process.
"We reject the use of violence by those who seek to overturn Yemen's political transition for their own interests, and fully support President Hadi as the legitimately-mandated president," read a statement from a group of ambassadors issued by the US Embassy in Yemen. The US works closely with Hadi's campaign in Yemen against the radical group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold a special meeting to discuss Yemen on Tuesday.
The recent violence could hamper efforts to battle AQAP, which is viewed by the West as one of al Qaeda's most dangerous branches. It claimed to be responsible for an attack in Paris on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 earlier this month.
Houthis have origins in the north of the country and are accused of links with Iran and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an autocrat who was in power for more than 30 years but ousted in 2012 by Arab Spring-inspired protests. The militia group is avowedly anti-US and anti-Israel.
Dozens have been killed in recent violence in Yemen between Houthis and Sunni tribes, raising fears that the country could become a failed state. Chaos in the country could extend beyond its borders, particularly into Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni leaders are anxiously monitoring the situation. The international community has been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the fighting as a result — so far without success.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck